Roles & Boundaries in Higher Education

As an educator, I have to remember that I am not a counselor, even though much of my class is built around soft-skills and information that I would explore and work on in a counseling relationship. But, I am an instructor, and it is imporant for me to know the difference, as well as to create and stick with an educational boundary that isn’t quite like the boundary I’d set with a group therapy session.

Of course I knew that my counseling informed my instruction, but it wasn’t until I was processing a student-student conflict that happened last week in class (of which I had felt I handled it badly and was in triage mode the rest of the class period, as well as ruminating all weekend) that as an educator I actually handled myself very well. But, as a counselor, I was holding myself to this supremely high expectation that is not reasonable given my circumstances.

And, in my role of adviser, I am noticing my boundaries loosening quite substantially in the year that I’ve been there. I’m beginning to feel ‘invested’ in these student’s lives, so when one is crying in my office because of crippling anxiety, or proudly sharing their name change to their biological family heritage, I’m finding myself caring, which isn’t to say that I didn’t care before, but I had built a strong mental boundary to eliminate lying in bed at 3am wondering how they are doing or what might help them be more successful. I know the student relationships are what feeds me, but there is the phrase ‘death by chocolate’ for a reason. And the crippling sadness and despair found in many of my student’s is having an effect.

So how do I find the balance? Less counseling in the classroom, in terms of what I expect of myself emotionally, and more counseling in the advising office, in terms of how I deal with boundary issues. But I’m not entirely sure how to do that…

Thoughts? How do you navigate boundaries and self-care and the various roles you have in your life?

State of the Union. State of my Mind.

I snapped this picture on MLK Day 2013 in downtown Seattle.

There’s a film of weariness hanging over me that I cannot seem to scrub off. I’m not sure if it’s the long nights with a teething toddler, or the daily reminder that my students are on the wrong side of the education tracks. Always working to gain ground. Never really getting ahead. Never really breaking through the walls. Sure that’s an overstatement, as I just learned of a sweet girl in my Fall quarter who made honor roll, but I also take her privileged homeschool life into account, and think: can all of my students make it? Can 50% of them make it? And what does making it really look like?

I flicked through the radio stations last night and heard snippets of breaking-news-gunfire from the cop-killer standoff and our president’s State of the Union address. I marvelled at how my student’s existence is more like that gunfight scene than the flowery words spouting from the president’s mouth. Perhaps I’m becoming cynical, now that I’m 30 and a mom and have been working with youth and families at-risk for a few years now, but I couldn’t help but feel a sense of defeatedness after listening to the brief ideas the president said. Something about a college scorecard and something about making the world a better place, which sounds nice, but doesn’t really cut it, in my opinion.

This idea of a college scorecard, so that parents can know the “bang for their buck” is good, in theory, but what does it really mean in practicality? What does it mean for my first generation students whose parents are looking for a “bang for their buck,” they’re looking for their student to get a job and move out because there are more mouths to feed. These students are on their own, 16, 17, 18, high school dropouts trying to reach the moon and stars and their dreamed-for AA degree. Most won’t make it. Not because we don’t do everything we can to advocate for them, to teach them how to navigate college, and pick majors, but because this-present-moment-life gets in their way, from jobs and babies and losing babies and breaking up and losing jobs, and LIFE gets in their way. But also, their past gets in their way. Choices they’ve made. Choices that have been made on their behalf. Choices that others have made that have affected them.

Mostly I am sad at how these student’s previous educational experience did not prepare them to be here at college. My public school kids were shuffled through like cattle, focusing on standardized tests and not really learning much about themselves, and my homeschooled kids lack an ability to socially interact with people who aren’t exactly like them, and haven’t been exposed to things that they might not agree with, they shut down when even the slightest ‘offensive’ material is presented (like, perhaps, having to decide whether they agree/disagree with innocuous statements like ‘be the change you wish to see in the world,’ or ‘love at first sight.’)

Boof and I go round and round about my own educational experience, having graduated debt-free from college and then having to take out thousands of dollars in loans for my Master’s. I go round and round with my friend Russ about his Sociology class and their lack of preparedness or ability to critically think. I feel like my students are stuck in a votex of propoganda where the message they get is “go to college, it will help you get a good job,” but many lack the ability to succeed in college and who’s to say that a college degree, at least a non-specific one like a general AA or a liberal arts BA will really get you a job. Because the liberal arts BA seems to be the equivilant of the old highschool diploma. Educational inflation.

I chose English because in high school I took classes like English, History, Math and PE. I knew I didn’t like Math, Science was hard, and English seemed interesting. I went to college and figured, “well, I guess I could be a writer, if a miracle happened, or I could teach English.” I mean, I thought I had thought a lot about it, but I really hadn’t. I figured that teaching was at least a job that was connected to a major. I couldn’t fathom all my friends who were Religous Studies majors and then ended up working as admin assistants, not doing anything remotely similar to their degree. What would it have looked like, though, if career and tech classes had been mandatory in HS? What would I have chosen to do if I had been forced into on-the-job training as a dental assistant or dabbled in culinary arts or radiology tech? Instead of the message ‘everyone needs to go to college,’ what if the message was, from a young-age, here are jobs or careers, try them, explore, learn about yourself, do what you’re good at, know that a job won’t bring all the fulfillment that you want so you’ll need hobbies, and go to college if you need to for the career you want, but don’t just go to college because you don’t know what to do and people are telling you to.

I don’t know if the post-secondary system can ever be fixed. I feel like I get my students too late to make a lot of difference. I wish that the upbringing in the K-12 system would equip them for higher education, and I wish that education was affordable and relevant to today’s market. I wish businesses really looked at whether someone would be a good fit for a job, regardless of whether they have a BA or an AA degree. I wish I had more hope than I currently do that it will all settle out and make my student’s lives shiny and good. These people I teach are delightful, with lovely and hard stories, and they deserve to not be failed by an archaic system.

I have a son. He will graduate from high school in 2029. What will the state of the union be then? The state of education?