Thursday, August 20, 2009

Can Teacher and Student ever be Just Friends?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Students = Friends?

It was one of those magical classes. You know what I’m talking about; the enthusiastic students just gel and the energy is so positive that every class is a joy for both the students and the teacher. My students in this class were mostly European, all women, and all excited about learning English. I taught them for a year, and though a few came and went, the core group consistently attended. They got along so well, they even met for coffee after every class. (Conversations were held in English, of course!)

At the end of the year, we decided that we would celebrate by going out for dinner. I was particularly excited about this plan because, for me, it signaled a transition from being their teacher to being a friend. However, as I dug into my gnocchi, I had to wonder exactly what they thought of our relationship. Was I seen as a teacher or a friend? Is it possible to be both at the same time?

One or the Other

When I was a new to teaching, it was challenging being the same age as many of my students. The things I did for fun when I was young and wild might have been a little inappropriate to do with students who had to take me seriously the next day. So, for me, there had to be a distinct line between my friends and my students. Once I got older, I found that my young students were less interested in hanging out with me, maybe because I have to be in bed by ten every night in order to function the next day.

Grading Friends

I have found that with age really does come wisdom, or at least a sense of perspective. When I was just starting out as a teacher, I became friends with one of the students in my Writing class. I was so sure she would pass the class, she was a wonderful person after all, that I told her I thought it was a sure bet. I was unable to be as objective and direct with her as I should have been. She never forgave me when she didn’t pass the final and had to retake the class.

As an older, more experienced teacher, I tend to put distance between myself and the students I grade. Although I am genuinely interested in them and like them very much as people, I have found that it is easier for me to be objective when the relationship is a little more formal, and it is less hurtful for them to receive criticism from a teacher than a friend.

I Want to be Just Friends

However, in spite of this self-imposed distance, I have always harbored a secret desire to befriend many of my students. Finally, it seemed as though I was in a situation in which this might be possible when I met this wonderful group of ladies who have become my monthly dinner companions. In addition to my having a lot in common with them personally (all of us are here in Belgium because of our husbands’ work, all of us are struggling to get by in a foreign language, all of us have left behind family, friends and, in many cases, excellent jobs, in our home countries), my school does not require that I give final grades, so we don’t have that pressure on our relationship. Even still, I was reluctant to abandon my role as a teacher until the evening that we celebrated the end of the school year.

Teacher Talk

At that dinner, and the ones we have enjoyed since, I have noticed an interesting urge on my part to correct their grammar errors. I am not at all comfortable with this inclination. My students, on the other hand, love to be corrected and whenever I inadvertently slip in a recast and apologize, they insist that they want more. But, I don’t like it; it means I am still the teacher and not the friend.

When I think of the many English conversations I have had with non-native English speaking French teachers at my school, I never even have the urge to correct them much less actually do it. In fact, one of my co-workers asked me to correct her, and I had to admit that I was so busy listening to her message I didn’t even hear her mistakes. I certainly would never dream of correcting a native speaking friend. (Though, I do love to shout corrections at the TV whenever I hear poor grammar.) Nonetheless, I do hear my students’ errors. Why is this? Does this mean I can not really be friends with my former students?

Can a student and a teacher ever really be just friends? What do you think? Have you managed to find this balance in any of your relationships?


Comment from Anonymous
August 26, 2009 at 3:22 pm

I don't think that teachers and students can be true friends until it is no longer a teacher/student relationship. There are too many lines that can blur as well as too many conflicts of interest.

Comment from Anonymous
September 8, 2009 at 11:31 pm

I am writting from Turkey. My mother tongue is Zaza (a language which is belongs to Iranian language family). I did't have any knowledge about Turkish, which is spoken in Turkey officially, until ı was six years old. Then I started to go school where I learned Turkish. After graduating from University I learned Persian. Then English. In the course of my learning process I have benefited from Grammar. this process is still continuing.
Good luck

Comment from SisTeach
November 13, 2010 at 10:44 am

I think it is possible for a teacher and student to be just friends, however, also have seen some problems with female teacher-male student “friendships”. My sister has been a teacher for many years, and, several of her former student, who are still in school, greet her like a friend, hug her, sometimes flirtingly squeeze her posterior (she takes it all in stride and doesn’t say anything unless it’s a blatant “grope”). Visiting her at school one day, two students stopped by her room to talk about something, and, as it was the end of the day and her own students were gone, both gave her a hug. The second one, though, also kept his hands to her waist while they chatted, raising my question to her afterwards as to “And what was that with that kid’s hands on you?”

She brushed it off as having had them before, “are good guys”, but did add reminding them before about her being a teacher first, then friend. From what I saw, they (the boys) didn’t get it.

Comment from Tamara Jones
November 14, 2010 at 11:41 pm

Yikes! I have to say a posterior squeeze certainly crosses the line between teacher and friend, and then some! Although your sister may not be bothered by it, she might want to make it clear to her students that (at least) in a North American academic context, that behavior could potentially be construed as sexual harassment.

Comment from aliseidu
February 18, 2011 at 10:18 am

to me is good for student to friend with his/her teacher.i am one of thoes people,thank u very much

Comment from Tamara Jones
February 21, 2011 at 3:35 am

I am happy to report that several of my former students / current friends and I are meeting up in Spain in April for a little vacation.

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