Teachers as friends

Samin Sakib asks, can we be friends with our teachers? Where do we create barriers?

 mindspeak

An ever-changing world seeks advancement in every aspect of life including education. Since it is recognised that the level of education in the developed world is far higher than in the developing countries, it stands to reason that education has an important role to play in the evolution of developing countries. Our present education system indicates that knowledge should be disseminated by the teacher to students. This is by far the most common approach used by most education establishments. Whatever the teaching method is in any setup, there are two important components in the process of education and learning —teacher and students. It does seem that the best teachers will promote the greatest amount of learning in students. Yet, the process of learning is so complex that teachers, even the best teachers, may play only a minor part in students’ learning.

I used to think teachers could be friends with their students, but then I realised I was confusing, ‘friend,’ with, ‘friendly.’ We can grow closer to teachers 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 programmes 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. But when it comes to school children, however, they don’t have that equal influence on growing relationships, and they are vulnerable. Adults are in a position of authority, and this asserts greater influence on children than it does on other adults.
We, students look for balance between what to cultivate and what to limit in teacher-student relations. There are boundaries, yet we sometimes want to invite our teachers 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 the teachers 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 see students as more than one more paper to grade. But then again we never notice. Alhough, 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. 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. For an example, 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 stunning 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, and a school counsellor. Teachers’ adult responsibility for the welfare of the child supersedes any element of friendship.

Some teachers dress and act like their students in effort to ingratiate themselves with students. The opposite happens, however. We prefer teachers to be adults, not overgrown versions of ourselves. We gravitate toward teachers who inspire us 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 we try on new vocabulary, behaviours, fashions, and politics, watching how we respond.
Whenever we throw a party, we invite friends. Whenever we struggle, friends comfort us. Whenever 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 the teacher’s pupils to being a friend, both the teacher and student 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. 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 we 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. And 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, teachers should still grade these students without bias, discipline them if they misbehave, and put them in positions of responsibility just as fairly as the teachers ever did before. If students ask intimate questions, the teachers should let them know they crossed a line and let them apologise.

I am a better person for having been influenced by the strong character and insight of some of my teachers over the years. 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 recognise 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 we made to our teachers.

Samin Sakib is a student of Bangladesh University of Professionals

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