Always a Teacher?

We all have various aspects to our personality – a different set of qualities, dressing sense, non-verbal and verbal styles of communicating with close friends, family, colleagues, employers and so on. We wear various masks throughout the day, and throughout our lives – and this was true long before Covid, and continues to be true even post-Covid. The distinction between a professional and personal side of ourselves is a common one, even though there are various shades within these.

Most people acknowledge the existence of a more public and formal persona as opposed to a more private and informal one. This spatially and/or temporally informed separation is an accepted reality. I write this article by drawing from my experience as a student and as a teacher – offering perspectives from two sides.

With respect to the profession of teaching, this distinction between personal and public is downplayed and even ignored. It is assumed that there must be a perfect congruence between the two personae or that the private persona is altogether absent since the professional self extends to the private, thereby swallowing it within itself.

Also read: A Biology Teacher Writes: The Annual Charm of Teaching the Reproductive System

At their workplace, teachers are expected to be perfect role models – since they are believed to be proxy parents within the school. Their dressing, behaviour, language and interactions within the presence of students are to be of a particular sort – always carrying the burden of setting a perfect example while delicately traversing the line between kindness and firmness. If I retrospectively think of my experience as a student, sometimes I have observed deliberate efforts by teachers to keep their personal side in check, and not let this side escape and present itself to students – suppressing smiles and carefully choosing their words.

However, there are moments of crisis when this suppression does not succeed. For example, once a professor in college mistakenly used a curse word while talking passionately about a topic, and we all fell silent. It was so out of character, that in that moment we became aware of, and gained access to a reality that was hidden to us. That was the first time something like this had happened, a teacher’s mask slipped off to expose another side to her.

While keeping this personal side in check, there is however an impression among students that teachers are always exactly as they appear in school. That their lives start and end with their work, and that their personal lives do not exist. I remember the discomfort I used to feel when I saw my teachers at malls or markets – with their own families, wearing clothes that match their personal self-expression. This was an experience shared by many classmates as well – we found it weird that they had “non-teacher” personalities too. Is this oblivion and awkwardness a result of these deliberate efforts by teachers to self-check and suppress their other personalities within the classroom?

To exacerbate this division, the staffroom is often treated as a hallowed space – students are hesitant and even afraid to enter. This aura of exclusivity is created as this room is a space where teachers can switch their masks. Due to this reason, the access of students to staffrooms is often prohibited or strictly monitored. This fear felt by students is not due to explicit instructions but due to the exclusivity of the space. Most other spaces in the school were accessible to members of staff and the student body, but the staffroom is one of the exceptions. As a teacher, I have often been asked to meet students outside and not let them in, as it is a private space where students may overhear private conversations they are not supposed to.

In the world of social media, this distinction is becoming hard to maintain. Especially if one has a public profile. You cannot manage who has access and who is denied admission. But teachers, just like students, are active on social media and display their private lives to their friends and followers. Students often giggle and make jokes if they discover a teacher’s social media account, not only because of the nature of the content but also because of the sheer misbelief that teachers are normal people who use social media, make reels, put punny captions, like dressing up, being goofy, going out, and having a good time with their friends.

One of my favourite teachers from school once told us that she accepts Facebook requests from students only after they graduate, and I think that is how she preserved her public persona. However, later in life, a friend who is a college professor told me that she accepts requests of students on social media because they should also know that she is a full human being. These are two completely different views which express some of the ways to look at this equation between teachers and students in a digital context.

Also read: A Teacher Who Never Really Was

Apart from the interplay between teachers and students forming the basis of unrealistic standards of behaviour and personality, there are other larger factors at play, including the moral expectations placed by senior members of the school administration and staff, as well as society at large affect how teachers are viewed. I know that my friends working in the corporate sector for example refer to their colleagues by their first name – irrespective of the age difference. A facilitator in a policy workshop I once attended, joked to the participants (who were mostly students) that they need not call him “sir” as he has not been knighted. It was interesting to note the discomfort in the voices of the students who struggled to call a man double their age by his first name. In schools, it is quite common for teachers to refer to each other as “Ma’am”, and the reason provided is that students might overhear conversations and get in the habit of calling teachers by first names too. I feel like this is unlikely because in college, we often heard professors addressing each other on a first-name basis, but we never dared to do the same.

Why is a moral burden placed disproportionally on teachers? Not just in their professional but even their personal lives. Must teachers always be on their guard, always conscious of the “example” they are setting for their students?

This discussion takes an even more complicated trajectory with reference to residential schools where the personal life of teachers is often embedded within their workplace, leading to disagreements and ambiguities regarding the separation. Is their accommodation their personal space or an extension of the workplace? Are they to adhere to the conduct of their workplace within the four walls of their houses or rooms as well? Some would outrightly say ‘no’ – personal space equals personal freedom right? But the reasoning often is that when it comes to students, they are expected to adhere to these rules within their rooms as well, so teachers must do the same to serve as models for their behaviour.

However, is this a fair equivalence? Teachers are adults navigating their workplace and not students in a school. Is it fair to subject them to the same rules?

We need to interrogate and expand our understanding of how we view the lives of teachers. There is a need to move away from straitjacketing them into a uni-dimensional personality and instead viewing them as multi-faceted.

Shambhavi Gupta is a post-graduate in Sociology, an educator and a classical dancer who likes to read, sing, bake, and write down her thoughts.

Featured image: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis