We are Only Teachers
It is vital for every adult literacy educator to know their professional boundaries. To remember: we are teachers, not psychologists, not therapists, not marriage counsellors, not lawyers, not addictions counsellors, not priests.
Inevitably, some of our learners will have really serious issues they have to face outside the classroom or tutoring. By simply showing support—by nurturing in the early stages, as I am advocating—and being sensitive to learners’ physical and mental needs, we can be asked for advice or direct help by some learners. We can be seen as a trusted life line…a friend that can help. But, as a professional teacher or tutor, we must know our professional boundaries. Not only for our sake or the learner’s sake, but for the sake of the program. Professionals, which I argue we are, have professional boundaries and we need to be aware of them.
Setting Professional boundaries and why this matters.
On a personal note, I was director of basic education in a Saskatchewan community college with a staff of about 35 teachers. Unbeknown to me at the time, I had two teachers loan money to their learners, loan learners their car, give them rides. One female teacher even took a male learner into her home to try to help him in a time of crisis; she ultimately had an emotional breakdown and had to go on sick leave. Looking back on my own inability to pick up on what was happening and not discussing and insisting on professional boundaries across the program in those early days, I really learned the hard way. And still regret what happened.
In short: We can best help a learner in a crisis or facing a problematic situation by referring them to the appropriate professionals. We are only teachers.
Your organization’s coordinator or your employing institution needs a clear policy of ethics for all teachers and tutors on “what not to do,” together with an up-to-date listing of “where and how to refer learners if they need professional services or help.” Providing such information can be the program coordinator’s role or the counsellor’s role (if you have a counsellor; few programs do). If your employer or coordinator does not have such policies or guidelines, try to initiate a discussion to develop them. We need to be able to help by getting learners referred to appropriate services; for instance: legal aid, family support, health facilities, social services, women’s shelters, counselling services, band counsel support, and/or financial support. It is important for your program to know when the “bridge-to-help-is-too-far.” Turn it over to other professionals for everyone’s sake.