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.

9 thoughts on “Need a hug?

  1. Gosh, it’s so hard. Many times the best way to show empathy is with a calming/soothing touch. However, when one’s teaching license is at risk, it makes sense to provide warm remarks rather than touch.
    As I wrote that, it made my stomach turn. What kind of world are we living in!?
    If my child were crying and upset, I would want whatever adult was present to calm them down. If that meant a hand on the shoulder, then that would be fine.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think this is one reason I am retired- while I decreased my physical contact with students, I still crave that human touch at the right moment. You are respectful to all sides, here, as you lay out your story and ask thought-provoking questions. For one, yes, a white older woman can get away with that hug that might get a younger, male, teacher-of-color fired. What to do? I appreciate, also, Stacey’s remark above that writing her first paragraph made her stomach turn. Another stressor for educators with heart.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I bet I know exactly what you did. I’m in such a different situation. My students initiate hugs all the time and they rarely ask. That’s how I know they are comfortable. That’s how I know they feel safe in my classroom.

    I’m confident the OCT doesn’t share all the details that lead to someone losing their license.


  4. I’m leaving your post with questions too today. Ugh. Why is everything so complex? Although, I’ll be honest, your questions about race and gender made me pause- because I know that for many, that would change the narrative. I don’t naturally think like that. I know that’s privilege. I can picture that student looking up at you and my heart breaks.


  5. I teach elementary kids and so it may be more acceptable there to offer a hug. I have a student who wants a hug every day before they leave. I give it. I remember during the pandemic seeing one of my former students and asking if they’d turn around so I could hug them from the back. I believe in hugs.


  6. I retired in June and am subbing. Every time I’m back in my “home school” and last year’s students see me, I am guaranteed at least 2-3 hugs. As long as they initiate it, I hug them. I can’t help it. Could you?


  7. Uugggghhhhhh…I feel this; similar-ish situation. I would hug. 100%. I would hug and know that’s what they needed. I have a student who melts into side hugs. I have had students collapse in tears in my arms. Whatever you chose, you made the choice that needed to happen in that moment.


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