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Distressing, Embarrassing Questions Are Par for the Course

By Julie Scullen
 | Jan 20, 2016

shutterstock_210167587_x300He stood near my desk, clearly anxious, and waited for the classroom to empty. This is never a good sign. Seventh-grade boys do not stay after class. Worse, he was staring at my belly. Three weeks left until my maternity leave was scheduled to start, and I sensed this was going to be a disturbing and harrowing conversation.

“Mrs. Scullen, I need to tell you something. Privately.”

I braced myself. In middle school, I had to be prepared for anything. He looked deeply into my eyes and gave me a sympathetic head tilt.

“I need you to know, Mrs. Scullen, it’s going to hurt bad when that baby comes out. Really bad.”

I was able to keep a straight face, thank him, and let him know I would look into that. Relieved, he bounded out the door to lunch, his duty done.

This interaction was less horrifying than the one I had with an eighth-grade boy on the day I told my classes I was expecting. This young man snickered in the back of the room, gave me a thumbs up and a wink. Mortifying, and more than a little offensive.

As this was my third pregnancy as a middle school teacher, I was prepared for the interesting insights provided by my students. They were completely comfortable talking about any topic and rarely thought about boundaries.

Unfortunately, neither do their parents. For some reason, being a teacher suddenly opens a person up to all kinds of interactions addressing all sorts of personal topics. There are no boundaries.

I spent much of the last few days of what felt like my eleventh month of pregnancy lifting my belly out of the way so that I didn’t bump into desks or students in my crowded classroom. I had students’ complete attention—they stared at me with big eyes, I assumed they were worried I might burst.

I was prepared for the impending conference night—that most parents would be interested in the person hired to take over the class, how long I would be on leave, and how their child would do with the new teacher. These questions I was prepared to answer. Yet someone always manages to catch the teacher off guard. A lack of boundaries creates interesting conversation.

One mom asked if this was my first child.

“Oh, golly, no. My third, and the way I feel now, our last.”

Her next question still haunts me—“Really? Which one of you will get fixed?”

I must have mumbled some kind of response as she left the room, but I remember thinking, “Which one of us is broken?”

Another parent with boundary issues appeared in my room, took one look at me and announced, “Well! I can see why my son hates your class!” While I was trying to find my voice, she flounced to a student chair and said, “We’ve always taught our son that pregnant women are [tramps].” She used a more embarrassing word, but I do have boundaries, so I will let readers choose their own word. Apparently, this terminology was designed to keep her son away from romantic pursuits. I sometimes wonder exactly how that worked out.

As teachers, we expect our students to ask uncomfortable questions. It’s always a little awkward when the adults ask the distressing questions. But they do. Teachers are practically family, after all.

Middle schoolers are honest, open, and on the verge. They are on the verge of moving from preteen to teenager, busily connecting old thoughts to challenging new ones. Teachers don’t live at school! Teachers have babies! Teachers go to the gym and to the grocery store! Teachers are people!

In middle-school classrooms, boys who need to shave sit next to peers who regularly play with Barbies and Legos. Sometimes, those are even the same kid. I have to admit, though, for all of the embarrassment, these students without boundaries are my favorite students. Their questions make me smile and make me think.

Julie Scullen is a former president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council and is a current member of the International Literacy Association Board of Directors. She taught most of her career in Secondary Reading Intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, as well as reading assessment and evaluation.


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  1. Michelle | Feb 22, 2016
    If you are able to talk to students on any personal topics you are doing everything right! Only good teachers, who cares about young people not only their grades deserves admiration. Pregnancy is not the most difficult topic to talk about. Teacher is the one who teaches not only Math for example, but social cooperation and behavior as well. Student who are learning Pedagogics can  <a href="">order essay on buyessayhelp</a> if they are worried about what to speak with class about during first lessons. 

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