Separating the personal from the professional

Today one of my students began asking me all kinds of personal questions. When I say personal I don’t mean super personal, but personal as in they were not about English. He asked about my family, what I do in my free time, what things I like, etc. Of course I didn’t reveal anything private or overly personal as I know when to draw the line. But I began to wonder where you should draw the line between what is appropriate and inappropriate information to share with your students who are, in fact, clients. Furthermore, can talking about your personal life influence your professional life? Does it influence it in positive ways or negative ways and how?

To answer my own question I think that it is possible for your personal life to influence your professional life. Whether this influence is positive or negative depends on what you share, the type of relationship you have, and how you share it.

Obviously there are aspects of your life that you shouldn’t share with your clients. But I’m referring to talking about your family, hobbies, personal likes and dislikes, etc. If you have something in common with your students, it’s okay to comment on this and mention it. This can help to build rapport and establish a relationship. I doubt anyone wants a teacher who is a robot and never reveals anything about themselves.

In regard to the type of relationship, I think the student-teacher relationship is one where it can be beneficial to share your experiences with your students. However, in some professions it may not be helpful. Also certain clients may be interested in knowing things about you while others might not care and would be annoyed if you mentioned things they consider irrelevant to the business they have with you.

How you share the selected information can also greatly influence things. If you brag about something, for example, chances are it won’t be received well. If your job is to focus on your client and their own experiences, constantly referring back to your own will be annoying and may discourage the clients from sharing information about themselves.

But where does the cultural element come into play? When my student first began asking questions, I was a bit taken aback. I immediately thought that this student had ulterior motives. After all, why would a student ask so many personal questions? But when I asked some of my Russian friends and colleagues about this, I was informed that it is only natural because Russians are curious about Americans. Furthermore, they want to know information about their teachers in order to get to know them better. It isn’t natural have such a cold and distant relationship between student and teacher.

Later I learned that previous teachers had spent time with their students outside the classroom, even having parties with their students and drinking together. I couldn’t help but wonder if this would make the students lose respect for their teacher, to see them drinking or drunk, acting silly and having a glimpse into their private life. But I was surprised to learn that it simply bonds them closer together, earns the teachers more respect and makes them that much more credible. Perhaps it’s a cultural difference because I know such behavior would certainly be condemned in America. At university there were a few circumstances where time was spent outside of class with professors but only in special relationships where a professor was a mentor and friend.

All in all, spending time with your clients can have both positive and negative effects and the culture you are working in has to be taken into account. When all factors are considered, you can adapt personal relationships to benefit everyone involved. As for me, I’ve begun to share more information about myself than I would normally be comfortable sharing. Consequently, I have noticed a better, stronger rapport between my students and I and I think it has benefited us all. My classes are better, my students are more connected and interested, and we are all learning from each other whether we realize it or not.

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