How much should I reveal about myself?

Two Mondays ago, 30 minutes before class I received word that my dear brother Cameron had two brain aneurysms and that one had ruptured during his sleep. He lives in Slovenia with his wife and son. I broke down and cried. Perhaps making the wrong decision, I chose to hold class, though for less than a full period. I dried my eyes, went for a walk, cried for a second time, dried my eyes, and went to my classroom. It was rough. I have no clue what I looked like, but teaching while in shock has minimal merit. It was a similar experience for the other two classes that day. Between classes and for the rest of the day and night I researched flights to Slovenia and tried to get further updates from Slovenian contacts and doctors. I had very little success.

Very early the next morning, I learned that emergency surgery to drain all the blood from his brain cavity was performed. Cameron’s left side and his right eye were paralyzed. I was also told that the doctor had put Cameron’s chances of survival at 50/50. Can you imagine a zombie teaching a philosophy class? That image is of me. Nonetheless I managed to hold myself and both of my two classes together that day. I decided to fly to Slovenia. There was no way I wasn’t going to try to see my brother again. If he was going to die, I wanted to be by his side. 

The following day—again very early in the morning—I learned that Cameron had made a remarkable turnaround. His left side was no longer paralyzed. He was to be transferred from critical care to the neurology clinic. Signs were definitely looking up and Cameron’s doctors were highly pleased.

On social media I learned of an anonymous student who complained about the quality of my teaching. That my voice was draining; that I didn’t seem to enjoy teaching. That student was onto something. I was literally in shock while I was teaching; I wasn’t present for my students.

So the very next class I began by saying that it’s hard to know how much to reveal about my personal life as a teacher. I told them that in this case, however, I should say something, because my teaching has been adversely affected. I apologized for my being “out of it” the prior class and, without going into too much detail, explained why. I informed them that I may leave for Slovenia at any moment, depending on what news I received about my brother. And that if I space out for a second don’t be surprised—and to bear with me.

I felt a real difference in the classroom. I had already suspected that students need to see their teachers as full people, and now that suspicion was clearly confirmed. The more and more I teach, it seems the more and more I reveal about myself. That’s not always a bad thing. I don’t believe that there’s some easy algorithm, or perhaps an algorithm at all, that can determine when and to what extent a teacher should reveal herself or himself to the class. Why did I choose to discuss aid to combat poverty this semester rather than the ethics of war as I did last semester? Why did I stop wearing a wedding ring last year? These are difficult questions, and I have no easy answers. However, I do know now that the wrong answer is just to keep a comfortable, “safe” distance from students at all times.