Need a hug?

Two days before Winter Break, I asked a student to switch seats to mitigate disruptive behaviour. Instead, angry, they ran out of the room and left the school. The next day ice and snow closed schools, so we didn’t see each other again until January.

This gave me plenty of time to reflect. In my twenty-some-odd years of teaching, I’ve only rarely experienced something like this. I know enough to know that it’s not usually about the teacher, but I also know enough to know that there are always things I could have done differently and better. Without beating myself up, I thought long and hard about what had happened.

The first day back, the student was in class. I let everyone go a minute early, knowing that this student rarely left quickly. As they packed, I sat next to them and quietly apologized for my role in their distress. They ducked their head and looked away, “No. it was me. I’m really sorry.” We talked briefly, me explaining that I could have noticed their distress, them explaining that there was a lot going on. 

After that moment, they came to class a little more often and showed up during exam days for extra help so they could pass English. Every interaction felt a tiny bit more relaxed.

Then the semester ended, and the student was no longer in my class. Last week, I popped over to the public library (right next door to the school – so convenient), and saw this student, this child, standing, clearly forlorn, a large bag dangling from one hand. When I greeted them, I noticed their red eyes. I asked about the bag – they didn’t say much. I asked if they were ok.

“People are mean,” they whispered, and tears welled in their eyes. I said yes, sometimes they really are. I asked if I could help. No. I asked if teachers or students were being mean. Students. Silence. The tears spilled over. 

I leaned in and touched their shoulder gently. “I wish I could give you a hug,” I said.

“You can,” they replied, and looked up.

I’ll stop there. 

These days, teachers cannot hug students. Just this week, the Ontario College of Teachers’ newsletter included “hugging” as one of the several reasons a teacher’s license was suspended. Even touching the child’s arm was possibly a bridge too far. We do not hug students.

On the other hand, the child was crying. They had been bullied and spent much of the class in the office as a result. They did not see school as a safe space, but they were starting see me as safe. 

So, what do you think? Should I have given them a hug? What would you have done? What would you want for your child? Does your answer change if I am NOT a middle-aged white woman? Does it change based on the child’s gender? Or are teachers – acting in loco parentis – allowed to treat all children in our care with, well, care? Can we comfort them when they ask for comfort? 

I know my answer. What’s yours?

Thanks to for hosting this space for teacher-writers.