Getting a “Staff Infection”

I’m a poet, and I often write about my students.  Some people, especially those who have never taught, think this is weird.  Some even think it makes me creepy. Others go as far as to think that I’m taking advantage of my students by doing so.  In truth, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it, so I’m doing the only think that I know how to do – I’m going to write about it to try to figure it out.

Firstly, it makes perfect sense to me to write about my students because of the golden rule of writing – ‘write what you know.’  The people with whom I spend the most time, especially when I was out in the ‘real world,’ were definitely my students.  From 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. every weekday, I was surrounded by teenage students.  That’s more time than I spent with my mother every week, and sometimes even my boyfriend.  It’s all right to write about my boyfriend (I think), my neighbors, my childhood friends, so why not my students?  Surely, I don’t know every thing that goes on in their lives, and I’m not sure that I’d want to.  But, bottom line, my students took up a huge amount of time real estate in my life, so it makes sense that they would occupy my thoughts.

Further, I CARE so darn much about my students.  Sometimes, I think I care too much.  When I write about my students, especially the difficult, complicated ones, I get upset.  Not because I think these students are awful, but because I feel for them, I hurt for all the hardships they’ve had to endure in life.  However, sometimes I don’t think this care comes across to readers of my work.  In a recent poem, I talked about how tempting it can be to complain about students.  I know that I’m guilty of it, but I know that, deep down, I still love them all.  I wouldn’t be able to keep doing my job if I didn’t.  But not all my readers know that about me.

One of my colleagues brought up an education school piece of advice that I also heard in undergraduate school – that new teachers should avoid the teachers’ lounge because, otherwise, they would catch a ‘staff infection’ and grow cynical about students.  After teaching high school for five years, I don’t disagree with this piece of advice, but I also think it oversimplifies the emotions of teaching.  It’s incorrect to assume that every teacher will love every students and that there won’t be days when cynicism seeps in.  I think denying these emotions can damage the integrity of the profession.  But are teachers allowed to admit that?  If I write honestly about my feelings about teaching am I betraying some ‘code’ of the profession?

Also, more alarmingly, am I exploiting my students by writing about them?  Do I have the right to tell their stories?  Is it different to write about people who come into our lives when the teacher/student power dynamic already gives me such leverage?  If so, does that mean that parents shouldn’t write about their children?  What about animals?  Clearly, I don’t have the answers, and the ethics of this situation haunt me every time I write.  I would welcome any feedback or commentary to keep the discussion going.

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One Response to Getting a “Staff Infection”

  1. cavingcliff

    That’s an interesting issue! I don’t see any problem in general. Obviously, you’re not going to be circulating any personally identifiable poem. I’m just a “hack” poet, but I feel that what little I write helps me to think about things and develop an understanding of things, so I could see how this would help with individual students. Seems like a natural out-growth of something you really care about. I say: “go for it.”

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