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Sharing Personal Experiences When Teaching, How Much Is Too Much?

A girls looks at a tablet with a shocked expression.

Do your students really need to know the details about your personal life this past weekend? Probably not.

When it comes to sharing personal experiences when teaching, sometimes teachers face a dilemma in determining how much of their lives to share with their students. As someone who won the title "Best Storyteller" in the senior yearbook, you can probably guess where I stand on this issue. Drawing upon a teacher's own life experiences can help students learn and understand, but, most importantly, it can help build relationships in the classroom.

Further Reading: 3 Reasons to Start a Teacher Blog Today

A Little Bit Rock and Roll

About 10 years after I began teaching, one of my students charged into class waving something above his head. It had finally happened—he'd found a photo of me on the internet. "You were a punk rocker!" he exclaimed.

I felt the blood rush to my face. I knew some of my students were aware I'd once been involved in the music scene, but I had always kept the true depth of my punk rock past a secret. As an educator, I didn't think it would play well with parents or administrators. However, with the ever-looming presence that is Google, I figured it was only a matter of time before I was outed. I had to think quickly. Should I deny or embrace my punk rock past?

I glanced down at the photo, while my students craned their necks to get a glimpse. There I was with my best friend, Allison, backstage at CBGB, the notorious punk club in New York City. It was 1981. The wall was splattered with colorful graffiti, and my white-blonde hair was short and streaked with a vein of bright blue. "Oh, I remember this," I said, smiling.

My students hit me with a barrage of questions about my punk rock days. Suddenly, I didn't want to keep it a secret anymore. Punk rock, I realized, actually helped me become a better teacher. I don't think I understood this at the beginning of my career. But I've come to appreciate my punk roots, and I've used the stories from that time to help inspire my students.

Imparting Some Musical Lessons

At the height of my involvement in the punk scene, I decided to go back to school to get my teaching degree, and no one thought I could do it. But my punky tenacity enabled me to work full-time during the day and attend school at night. It took nine years, but I earned my degree. Considering many of my students are forced to delay college or work and attend school, I share this story as proof that it can be done.

Equally relevant is how my punk friends and I fought against prejudice, racism, and hatred. In 1982, when I flew from Philadelphia to Boston to see my boyfriend (now husband), we protested a Ku Klux Klan rally at City Hall. My photo ended up on the front page of The New York Times—I don't even think my parents knew I was in Boston that day! Now, that story helps inspire students who want to take a stand against hate.

Punk rock also instilled in me a do-it-yourself work ethic. In the early 1980s, when I realized there was nowhere in my city to see the bands I loved, I rented Knights of Columbus halls and Elks centers, and called bands from all over the world to come and play shows. I share these stories with my students now to show them that if they want to see something happen, they might have to do it themselves. Plus, that work ethic comes in handy for obtaining resources; I refuse to take no for an answer when it comes to my students.

How to Properly Tell Your Story

Storytelling in the classroom can be powerful, and students enjoy getting a glimpse "behind the curtain." If you're unsure of the best way to share personal details while maintaining your authority, here are some guidelines.

  • Share only appropriate stories that have a connection to the classroom. There's no scenario where it's appropriate to tell students about your weekend of partying.
  • Tell stories to create common ground with your students. In my early years of teaching, when I worked with gang members, I noticed plenty of similarities to punk rock life. We had clothes and rituals that identified us, we were fiercely loyal to one another, and we considered ourselves to be tough and fearless. I used stories of my punk adventures to show students I had some experience with adversity and even violence, and that helped build solidarity in my classroom.
  • Share stories that help students understand that angst is universal. Recently, I visited my childhood home and found my diary from freshmen year. Every page was filled with musings about "John," who completely dominated my life at that time—looking at it now, I couldn't even remember who he was! I had to call my best friend and ask her. Sharing this with students who are dealing with unrequited love and heartbreak helps them see life goes on; what seems tragic today will likely be forgotten a few years from now.
  • Remember that your students can't fix your life. Don't tell stories about your marital issues or lack of job advancement. Instead, share how you solved a problem that students might face so you can help them move forward with finding solutions of their own.
  • Tell stories that show resilience and courage. You're a role model for your students, and seeing your strength will inspire them to persevere and stand up for what they believe in.

Further Reading: 6 Types of Teacher Jokes You Probably Tell Over and Over

It's important to be mindful when sharing personal experiences when teaching. Use these tips to guide you to create common ground and use these stories to build strong relationships in your classroom.