Sunday, December 14, 2014

A "Touchy" Topic

Last week, a friend of mine, who works with the school board centrally, stopped by my school unexpectedly. The snow storm had made his commute insane; he had been travelling for over two hours and still had not reached his destination. He asked if he could work in the library at my school instead of wasting more time trying to battle the weather and travel conditions. I welcomed him in. It was wonderful to have him around because he joined in and co-taught a couple of classes with me. In the afternoon, we were doing a drama activity called Toy Store with a Grade 1-2 class. The children were toys in a toy store that come to life when the toy store owner wasn't "around". As the toy store owner started to clean up the store and put the toys back on the shelf, my friend stepped out of role for a moment to ask "How are we supposed to move them?" I thought this was an unusual question until I realized that, as a male teacher, my friend was very cautious about when, how, and where he made physical contact with students.

Photo from Life Magazine
His question made me reflect on touching in schools. When my friend was a brand-new teacher, she said that most of their professional development workshops began with this message: "Welcome to today's session - remember, keep your hands off the students". This was a slight exaggeration, but understandable. Teachers need to be cautious when touching students so there aren't accusations of inappropriate contact. In a quick Google search, policy surrounding touch in the classroom encouraged restraint and caution: Touch only when necessary. Be professional and use professional judgement. However, I did find  this webcast that suggested that touch is important in schools. The discussion mentioned the famous Harlow monkey experiment where baby monkeys would cling to the comfort surrogate instead of the food surrogate. However, this opinion was definitely in the minority.

I am not as cautious as I should be. I admit - I do touch my students. However, most of the time, I do not initiate the contact. Students run up to me and hug me in the hall. If I sit on the carpet, students want to sit next to me or sit on my lap. While walking in line, students want to hold my hand. I don't encourage it but I don't discourage it when it happens, and if the hug lasts for more than a second or two, I try to redirect the student. I think this is due in part to my own upbringing and cultural norms. I'm comfortable with physical contact. I'm friendly and I express it by shaking hands or patting arms. I must keep in mind that not everyone is at ease with touching. Patting a head or rubbing a shoulder may be seen as very disrespectful or too intimate. It seems, though, that some children need that physical connection with someone.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with another friend who is doing her PhD on smell. We need our senses. For the safety of students, we have no-touch policies at some schools. To help people with sensitivities, we have scent-free environments. Respecting these needs are important but we do lose a little something when we deny or deprive our other senses when we learn. Maybe this is why students love "hands-on" learning - if we can't touch people, we can touch things. Making things with our own hands satisfies a basic need we have. Look at this article that my friend Lisa Noble sent to me about the benefits of holiday baking. I won't hug each and every one of my children's teachers to thank them for treating my son and daughter well, but I can thank them by creating cookies. (In addition to the Orange Ice Box and Lemon Lime Twists I made before, I tried four new recipes. I forgot to take a photo of the Cinnamon cookies, but the others are below.)

White Chocolate and Butterscotch Cookies

Cherry and Lemon Cookies

Mini Raspberry Pinwheels
So where does this leave me and the way my students interact with me physically? I don't think I can completely stop returning hugs or holding hands, but I will be more aware. After all, not all touch is "bad touch", and acting as if all contact is forbidden sends the wrong message. Having said that, I'll be careful and consider how, when, where and why to touch. What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. I don't care if it's goofy for me to comment to my own post, but I read this article on January 23, 2015 and had to share the link, since it relates perfectly!