#1266: Pandemic Distance-Learning Teacher-Student Boundaries

Hi Capt. Awkward,

I/she/her am a high school teacher and we’re not returning to campus until next year. That means we have 12 more weeks of distance learning. Right now we’re completing Week 3.

I have a student (11th grade, so around 17) who has a variety of mental health needs, gender identity stuff, etc. This student and I got along very well when we met on campus, and I was able to make a good and empathic connection. The kid likes and trusts me. I knew before we went into the shelter-in-place that the kid’s parents aren’t very keen about the gender identity issues that this kid has.

Fast-forward to now. All of my students are sheltering in place and all of us teachers are trying to figure out distance learning. I figured very early on that we wouldn’t be coming back to campus for at least 2 months, so as soon as we were sent home I started a Slack workspace and invited my students into it. We keep in touch on a daily basis and I help them and, overall, Slack’s been great.

Except this student of mine, who I am very fond of, is stuck at home with their unfortunate parental situation. Like most of my students, being at home with the parents 24/7 is wearing on them. Add to that the gender stuff and the mental health issues, and the student really needs someone to talk to. They’re in pre-crisis mode. So the student has been reaching out to me.

I spent several hours last Thursday evening chatting with this student in Slack, and they told me several things in strict confidence (nothing alarming or that would require CPS reporting, but very personal, like what you would say to a friend). I was really trying to be there for the kid, but I ended up with searing pain in my legs from sitting for so long in my office chair – this was after a solid day of sitting at my computer, working. I was there for the student, but I also suggested the student find their own people, their peer group, folks with the same gender identity experiences, mental health needs, and so forth.

I’m worried that the student currently sees me as the only person who is sympathetic and approachable, and that the student will then want to talk to me for several hours at a go, several days a week. I am sympathetic to the student, but the student isn’t my friend, and I have my own family concerns and mental and physical health issues. I don’t want to leave the student in the lurch. I want to be supportive. I want to do a good job as a teacher. And I recognize that these are strange times and that nothing is going the way anyone expected and I should have added empathy and availability for my students, but I’m already stretched pretty thin here as it is.

How do I tell the student that, while I’m there and interested, I can’t do these 4 hour long conversations while my legs are screaming in pain without hurting their feelings, making them feel rejected, etc.? How can I further reinforce that they need to find their own Team You without sounding dismissive?

–Just a teacher

Hi there, Just A Teacher,

You did a very, very kind thing for your student that day.

Can you try to sit with just that for a moment?

Let go for a moment of framing this in terms of boundaries, professional conduct, the future, the fear of  letting someone down in the future, or the panic of being stretched too thin and wanting to conserve your resources for yourself and your family. You’re skipping ahead to anxiety and guilt about “what if I can’t do this next time/all the time” before letting yourself feel good about what you did do, i.e. When the chips were down and a struggling student needed you, you were there.

You might not always be able to be there in exactly that way, nobody should expect you to do that all the time, it’s okay to set limits and offer alternative support systems, you can’t singlehandedly stand in for a school full of peers and counselors and fellow teachers or make up for the lack caused by faulty parenting, that’s all true! But none of that changes the importance of what you did that day. Can you let that generosity and service and grace be the starting point of the story, just for today, instead of coming at it from a place of scarcity?

I say this because I do not have a script to make the mixed message of  “please reach out to me, I am a trusted adult” and “wait, no, not like that!” go down easier, especially in a crisis when the needs are so real and urgent and some of the usual rules of life do need to be relaxed. As you pointed out, this isn’t a peer or a close friend, where a respectful mutual renegotiation of boundaries and limits is expected. A vulnerable student who is already being made to feel like their very existence is the problem in their home is going to only hear the second part, no matter how much you mean the first, and whatever you do or say next needs to be in context of that truth.

That doesn’t mean that you are now 24-7 on-call for this student for however long they need or want to talk or else you’re a bad, ungenerous person. Consider that the problem isn’t how to get your student to never come to you with things you told them they could bring to you so that you won’t be in the awkward position of possibly letting them down or overloading yourself. Instead, try reframing the problem as you needing a plan for being kind to your student and yourself when and if* this happens again and giving yourself permission to execute that plan.

This means: The boundaries you most need to set right now are with yourself. Once you know what those are, if the situation comes up again, you’ll know what to do and what conversations to have.

Let’s translate that to scripts and practices.

*Don’t assume. One kind thing to do is to not assume that every time this student talks to you they are expecting several hours of intense crisis support. Maybe you don’t have to put yourself in the pre-emptive mode of fending that off. Maybe they do want that (you know them better than I do, so if that’s your strong sense you are probably right!), but maybe that initial session was enough to release a lot of pressure. What’s the worst thing that happens if you take your shoulders down from around your ears, stop walking on eggshells, relax the hyper-vigilance, and default instead to expecting a routine assignment question or a few minutes of friendly “Hello!” today?

If it’s not the case, your student will let you know, and you can react to what is happening vs. pre-acting to what you fear might happen. Read on and we’ll make a plan that isn’t “Hey Ms. Teacher”/”WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT LIMITS.” 🙂

Manage your time and use technology to create more intentional interactions within your limits. You’re in charge of you and your side of this conversation, including when you are visible/available online. I didn’t have an office when I was an adjunct professor, so I used to do virtual Office Hours for students – some scheduled, some ad hoc. Rule for ad hoc was, if you could see me logged in to the messaging system, you could interrupt me and ask me anything – you aren’t bothering me. If I didn’t want to be interrupted, I’d make myself invisible. Time is really weird right now, do you need to revisit your working hours and make a firm decision to clock in and out of online teaching and general availability? Can you set your availability and visibility for times when you know you’ll be able to engage? And can you post that information so it’s clear to everyone?

Be clear with *yourself* about what your limits are and then use that to set expectations. You don’t want to be stuck for hours feeling like you can’t get up from the chair. But only you can get up from the chair.

Practically, if your student reaches out again, and you have a sense that it’s going to be one of those conversations, why not set a timer and set expectations accordingly, like, “Hello, I’ve got about 20 minutes, what’s up?” If you need the restroom (or any reason to end the discussion), 17 is old enough to understand “I’m so sorry to cut you off, but I really have to go [take a bio break][get dinner on the table for my family][get offline for the evening] can you check in tomorrow or put it in an email?” Seventeen is also old enough to get that it’s not personal, you are a human being and you don’t live in the school like an evil gargoyle-Giles in a Dr. Who episode.

As in the housework/parenting post from last week, the larger meta-conversation about how you don’t have four-hour blocks of crisis counseling/hangout time in the future (a reasonable need!) isn’t going to work as well as “Hey, you caught me at a bad time, I’ve got about 10 minutes, though, what’s up?” and then actually ending the conversation when you need to. 

Offer a range of alternatives. I asked some friends and colleagues (including the wonderful S. Bear Bergman) where they would send a young person who needed online crisis help and gender-affirming social interactions and here is a sample list of places that your student might find a digital home and/or crisis support (Hint: This is also a list of places that could FOR SURE use some donation dollars from people reading & sharing this who want to save some lives today 😉 )

  • Here’s a list from the site about low-cost non-therapy mental health support options. If nothing on there works, use it as a jumping off point for web searches for similar things).
  • One thing you might be able to do is prompt the student to ask their parents for help locating counseling. A lot of insurance plans are covering telemedicine and video therapy during the pandemic, if the parents aren’t understanding about gender-identity stuff, something as simple as “I really miss my friends and school, I think I would feel better if I could talk to a counselor every week” or even “Can I talk to the family doctor about ways to feel better and take care of stress” might help put some support in place.
  • The Trevor Project has a phone and a text-based crisis hotline, as does the Trans Lifeline.
  • Scarleteen Forums – incl. one specifically about gender identity
  • Pride Center of West New York – has monthly group hangs via Zoom.
  • Grand Rapids Pride Center has an online group for transgender teens, age 13-17.
  • Not in West New York or Grand Rapids? Those spaces look like they welcome anybody online, but you can always add your city and town to your web searches to find more localized resources.
  • Here is a volunteer-facilitated & moderated  Q Chat Space for LGBTQ* Teens
  • S. Bear Bergman recommends searching Instagram & TikTok for relevant tags to find a lot of informal community. Think about using private browsing and regularly clearing out cookies and browser histories on your computer and devices and making alternate profiles that parents don’t know about for social media sites with obvious trans (or nonbinary, etc.) markers, since a lot of social media communities are hidden for privacy and safety reasons, adding:

There are good FB groups for trans folks generally, mostly secret/private so you have to be invited by someone who knows about them. The way to get into a group you don’t know exists and therefore don’t know if you know anyone in is to comment in the searchable groups that you’re looking for a secret group for (trans people only in healthcare) and make sure your public socmed profile represents you as trans in some way and/or link to your finsta or tumblr or whatever you have that’s trans. The bar for the first contact can feel super high. But it gets much easier for every time afterwards.”

Letter Writer, when you offer alternatives, possibly replace “Here’s you can talk to instead of me!” framing with “Hey, after we talked the other night I pulled together a list of spaces that will hopefully help you find a safe and friendly home online to just hang out and be yourself. There are a lot of trans and gender-questioning young adults and teens in exactly the same boat out there and a lot of crisis-support volunteers who know exactly what it’s like to be where you are. I’m glad you feel comfortable talking to me, but I want you to have lots and lots of options, especially to connect up with folks your own age or get urgent help if you’re spiraling.” 

You can also emphasize the student’s agency a lot when a situation where they need support comes up, and ask questions like “How do you want to build a wider support network? Where do you think it would be good to look for stuff that will help you and make you feel less alone? When your parents are [mean/don’t understand/won’t use your pronouns] what kinds of things might make you feel better?” I know “And what can I do to best support you?” is a scary question right now because it calls up the phantom of bottomless need and limitless time, but it’s not the worst question to ask. “I’ve got about 20 minutes, what can I do for you right now?” puts the emphasis on what you can offer vs. what you lack and invites the student to step into figuring out the situation together. Whether or not the student is in a place to meaningfully collaborate in that way, I think you’ll make better decisions if you’re not gripped by that fear of not being enough and focused more on what you can offer.

Keep your expectations small and honest. You can’t make the student use these resources or guarantee any one will be the right fit or that they will or won’t feel a certain way about being redirected. A lot of times “Please talk to a therapist/I can’t be your therapist” lands as “So you’re foisting me off on someone ELSE” and yup, that is what’s happening because by the time that’s the conversation the listening person has already reached capacity or the need is obviously outside what they can meet. Pretending that’s not what’s happening is actually gas-lighting, so, don’t do it. Your limits are your limits, their needs are still their needs. You can say “You deserve help even when I can’t be the one to help right now, I want you to have everything you need and lots of options for getting it” and it can still land as a rejection no matter how you mean it. That’s not your fault but it is real.

So what can you do if you have one of those sign-offs where you can tell the student is super bummed out that you can’t talk or embarrassed for taking up too much time or they say something manipulative that they’ll probably regret later like “ok I guess I’m a burden for everyone” or “sure, fob me off on some random strangers”? Here are some ways to be kind about that:

  1. Don’t try to talk people out of their feelings, tell them what their feelings are or should be, or manage their feelings for them. Someone can be hurting without you meaning to hurt them or being directly responsible for fixing the hurt. Acknowledge the feelings and then do what you need to do. “I hear that you’re feeling terrible, and I’m so sorry. You know I don’t see you that way,  but I do have to go right now, we’ll talk tomorrow.” 
  2. Start fresh tomorrow (or whenever you next connect). Don’t assume, don’t hide or avoid the person, treat the next interaction like you expect it to go fine, and don’t spend a lot of time discussing past interactions or re-defining the relationship. Everybody’s under pressure and you can be honest about that- “Nobody’s rocking it right now, I know we’re all doing our best. What’s new today? How’s that assignment going?” 

I repeat: Start fresh and hit the reset button a lot. Sometimes what our teen selves needed most was an adult that we could safely lose our shit in front of now and then who didn’t see those moments as the whole of what we were capable of. (Now that I write that all out like that, our adult selves need that, too, right?) Being consistent and friendly within the boundaries you need to set for yourself sends the message “You didn’t ruin it by needing too much” better than any “Hey, could you try not to need so much next time?” conversation.

You are doing a great job with what you have, and I really appreciate this question and the obvious care you have for your students so I’m going to tell you what you’re going to keep telling them: This isn’t going to last forever, we are all trying to do something incredibly hard and important, and it’s okay to take it one day at a time.