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Response: Can Teachers Be Friends With Students? -- Part One

Brad Patterson asked:

Can we be friends with our students? Where do we create barriers? How about social-media wise? I'm interested to hear about your experience, lessons learned, regrets, what you would offer as advice for new teachers.

It's an important question with two key components. One relates to the question of how teachers and students view their relationships with each other on a broader level, and the other more narrowly in the social media realm.

In fact, it's so important -- and it has so many nuances -- that I'll be devoting three separate posts responding to Brad's question.

The bulk of this post will be a guest response from well known author-educator Rick Wormeli.

On Friday, instead of posting the usual new "question of the week, teacher/author/blogger Jose Luis Vilson will share his guest response, I'll be sharing some of my own thoughts, and reader comments on the question will also be featured.

Finally, next Wednesday I'll be posting two guest responses -- from Bud Hunt and Ernie Rambo -- primarily answering the question through the lens of social media. I'll also include more reader comments.

Response From Rick Wormeli

Many readers are undoubtedly already familiar with Rick Wormeli's work. His reflections on teaching and learning -- shared though his books, articles and workshops -- have influenced many educators throughout the world, including me. He was kind enough to write this thoughtful response to Brad's question:

I used to think teachers could be friends with their students, but then I realized I was confusing, "friend," with, "friendly." We can grow closer to students when we share a common interest or work on long-term projects, but in every interaction, we remain teacher/student, mentor/mentee, not true friend, and this is wise.

As adults, age differences do not matter when designing new instructional programs, hiking mountain trails, or performing together in the same community orchestra. Adult friends have equal power to retain personal identity and shape the course of the friendship, including its dissolution, if necessary. School children, however, don't have that equal influence on growing relationships, and they are vulnerable: Adults are in positions of authority, and this asserts greater influence on children than it does on other adults. Unless it's through Big Brother/Sister programs or something similar, it seems inappropriate for a 25 year-old to spend most of his days in the company of an unrelated 15 year-old in our society.

We look for balance between what to cultivate and what to limit in teacher-student relations. There are boundaries, yet we want to be inviting to students and make sure they know they are good company. For as long as the child is a minor, however, it's not the same as friendships we enjoy with adults. Teachers and students can share an equal interest in local sports teams, for example, trading team updates, re-telling great moments in legendary games, and purchasing souvenirs for each other. These are acts of human connection, which is valuable to both parties. Students mature when adults extend these connections, and teachers enjoy the camaraderie for the team and seeing students as more than one more paper to grade.

Notice, though, that the teacher does not take the student out for coffee and vent about office politics. There are topics that are inappropriate for teachers to share with students, and such sharing can undermine learning relationships in the classroom, even when the teacher is already very familiar with the student and his family.

There are other dynamics at work, too. Clinical Social Worker, Michelle Selby, cautions that a teacher disclosing personal information with a student can be helpful when it is to help that student understand something, but never when it is for the purpose of adults filling their own needs, such as when seeking friendship or approval. Her husband, educator Monte Selby, adds, "A health teacher can help kids learn about human sexuality, but it is not appropriate for the same teacher to tell kids which student looks sexy or share intimate details of their own sexuality. Those efforts are attempts to fill adult needs, not support student learning."

While a friend might call us in the middle of the night when something upsets him or her, the teacher who receives such a call from a student remains the concerned mentor, calling the child's parents, health officials, a school counselor, or Child Protective Services after the call, if warranted. Our adult responsibility for the welfare of the child supersedes any element of friendship forged.

Some teachers dress and act like their students in effort to ingratiate themselves with students. The opposite happens, however. Students prefer teachers to be adults, not overgrown versions of themselves. Students gravitate toward teachers who inspire them to become something more than they are today, not extensions of their current condition. Sure, teachers clown around from time to time, but the better teachers remain clearly adults, facilitating learning, offering insight, and representing larger society as students try on new vocabulary, behaviors, fashions, and politics, watching how we respond.

When we throw a party, we invite friends. When we struggle, friends comfort us. When we are insensitive, friends forgive us. Friends become friends over extended, shared experiences that are not found in 50-minute class periods five times a week. For a student to move from being one of our pupils to being a friend, we need time with one another beyond his school years. We can grow closer when coaching sports teams, directing marching bands, and working on school publications, and when sharing segments of our non-school lives, such as participating in the same church/synagogue/mosque, Scout troop, or running club. During these experiences, we genuinely enjoy each other's company, sometimes speak as peers about mutually knowledgeable topics, send cards/e-mails of healing when one of us is sick, and we cheer from the sidelines when one of us achieves something important. These are humane acts. Are they being friendly? Yes. Are they inappropriate? No. Do they constitute full friendship? No.

Teachers and students share small parts of life's journey with one another every day. If they find something in common, are thoughtful toward one another, and through extended time, develop trust beyond that of mere acquaintances, they can't help but become friendly with one another, and this is a good thing. As professionals, we still grade these students without bias, discipline them if they misbehave, and put them in positions of responsibility just as fairly as we ever did before. If they ask intimate questions, we let them know they crossed a line and let them apologize.

I am a better person for having been influenced by the strong character and insight of some of my students over the years. When they became adults, a few of them moved into my circle of good friends. With Facebook turning the word, "friend," into a superficial commodity these days, true friendship seems diminished and uncertain. In an increasingly insecure world, we can't afford a policy of, "Teachers may never be friendly with students," but we can help teachers and students recognize clear boundaries rightfully established in successful teaching-learning relationships.

We forget sometimes that, while different from an adult friendship, the teacher-student relationship is not a lesser connection. It is often more meaningful and special, with tremendous value to both parties. We try to live up to its promise for the short time we have with our students. A friend taught me this.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. .

Thanks again to Brad for posing this week's question and to Rick for sharing his response!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

Watch for Part Two in this series on Friday!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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