Thursday, August 20, 2009
By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
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.
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.
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?