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Answering Personal Questions from Students

25/04/18

How to react when students ask you personal questions? Jo knows a trick or two, she used to teach year 5 class sex education.

“Miss, are you married?”

This is probably the most common non-educational question I’m asked as a teacher. As supply teachers, I think we avoid some of the most searching personal questions. However, if you work long term with the same group, they can become bolder, as well as genuinely more interested in you. Usually this can be taken as a compliment– but what do you do if the question is awkward? And how should you be answering questions like this anyway?

Younger children are often satisfied with a simple answer, and are also the easiest to distract. A “yes” or “no” followed by a question that makes them think about something else, or an instruction to the whole class will often do the job. So, depending on the child and the question, sometimes the best thing to do is just be honest and move on. Most people don’t mind telling others whether they are married or not, or perhaps if they have children, or pets. If it’s the sort of thing I would tell any new person on meeting them, then I don’t mind telling children. Little pieces of information can help them to see you as a person, which can help your relationship. If the timing is poor, or if the question is awkward for you for a personal reason, try something like, “We haven’t really got time to talk about that right now, because I want you all to have a turn at this/have enough time to do it/go to lunch on time.” They often forget, but you haven’t actually refused to answer!

Older or more persistent children’s questions can be more difficult. I’ve yet to have a really personal question as a supply teacher, but I had some interesting ones back when I was teaching my own year five class sex education! In this case, I reminded the children gently about a rule we made at the beginning – which was that I would not ask them anything about their personal experience or bodies, and expected the same in return. Now, in my temporary roles, I would say something like, “Hmm. Why do you think I might not want to answer that question?” and let the children answer for themselves. Then I might tell them about my rule, and I haven’t yet met a child who disagreed with it.

Sometimes, a personal or ‘off-topic’ question can be a learning opportunity. One of my favourite ones started like this:
“Miss, why are you called Mzzzzz – I don’t know how to say it.”
Another child, interrupting, jumped in with, “My mum says it’s when people are divorced but don’t want anyone to know.” As we had the time, I was able to enlighten them about the ideas of equality behind ‘Ms’ and it led to a really interesting discussion.

Often you can tell the difference between a curious question and a cheeky one, but this probably comes with experience. If you’re just starting out, at least try to come across as not easily shocked. A simple raise of the eyebrows while you think about what to say can work wonders. I once worked with a great lady who could raise just one. Use it if you can – it never failed. If you suspect a question might just be to get a reaction (if several other children are giggling, this is a dead giveaway!), you could try the above suggestions, or simply say that you don’t think they really need to know the answer to that question to take part in the lesson.

As with everything, you need a balance between professionalism and friendliness. You can tell children whether you’ve been to France or not, but maybe not every detail of what you did there. You can tell them which sports you like, but leave out how you’ve joined a football team to try to shift your Christmas flab. Always consider the appropriateness of what you say to young people, and err on the side of caution. Also keep in mind safeguarding issues; could there be a worrying reason why that child is asking an inappropriate question? Do you need to report it to someone?

It is always OK to say that you don’t want to answer a question, if you’re uncomfortable. But if you need some good ‘get-outs’, try these:
“I’d love to tell you, but I’m afraid I couldn’t do so without revealing my secret identity.”
“Sorry – I’m a robot and I’m only programmed for educational questions.”

And for the fairly common question about my age, my favourite is, “I’m 104. I’m looking pretty good, don’t you think?”

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