Can Teachers and Students Be Friends?

A 2013 e-book from Larry Ferlazzo and Education Week, Classroom Management Q &As: Expert Strategies for Teaching presented 14 questions about the best ways to manage learners and the learning process, with answers provided by an array of experts who first shared their insights at Ferlazzo’s popular Ed Week Teacher blog Classroom Q & A.

This excerpt has consistently been a Top 25 MiddleWeb post since it first appeared almost a decade ago. You’ll read two perspectives on the question: Can teachers be friends with students? The first response comes from Ferlazzo himself (a high school teacher who has also taught middle school); the second from Rick Wormeli, an award winning middle school teacher & consultant and the author of two books for novice middle grades educators.

larry-ferlazzo-twk1by Larry Ferlazzo

This is an important question with respect to instructional effectiveness since it brings up issues related to engagement, barriers, comportment, and respect—all key elements in teacher-student relationships. The question is also increasingly on teachers’ minds because of the rise of the social-media culture.

I was a community organizer for 19 years prior to becoming a teacher in 2003. One of the many organizing lessons I learned during that time and that I’ve tried to apply to teaching is the difference between public and private relationships.

This is not an either/or perspective, and clearly must be more nuanced in an environment like a classroom. Nevertheless, keeping it in mind has helped me maintain more of a personal/professional “equilibrium” and helped my students learn important life lessons.

Organizers believe that private relationships usually encompass our family and friends, where our imperfections tend to be accepted. We generally have these relationships on an “as is” basis. We expect not to be judged, and we expect loyalty—love in a broad sense is the “currency.”

Public relationships encompass everyone else. Reciprocity is the “currency.” We expect respect and gain it by being accountable for our actions. Loyalty is generated through reciprocity—a quid pro quo.

The bottom line, then, is that I view the teacher/student relationship as a public one—a caring one, a relationship that requires great patience and understanding—but, nevertheless, a public one.

classroom-management-qa-larry-ferlazzoHere’s an example of how this approach has informed my work in the classroom. One year, I had a student with an enormous number of challenges. I put a great deal of time and energy into supporting him, including purchasing books of his own choosing for him to read, working with him to develop alternative assignments that would be more fun and accessible, and providing occasional snacks between classes.

He made great progress during the first six weeks of the school year, and was a delight to have in class. However, things began to go downhill dramatically at that point. One day—after he said something like “You don’t care about me and you just want to kick me out of class!”—I asked him to go outside with me so we could have a private talk.

This is what I said to him in a calm voice:

“I felt hurt by what you said. I feel like I’ve bent over backward to support you and help you succeed. (I then gave examples.) I don’t need thanks, but I expect respect. And I haven’t been feeling very respected by you over the past few weeks. I will be a helpful and supportive teacher to you, as I am with all the students in my class. But I don’t feel like continuing to go the extra mile for someone who doesn’t show me respect. I want to emphasize that I will be a helpful and supportive teacher to you, but I’m just not going to continue to go the extra mile.”

He began to react negatively, but I quickly ended the conversation and we returned to class. Afterwards, however, the student returned to being respectful and hardworking, and I returned to “going the extra mile.” He ended up having a very successful year.

As I’ve emphasized, my approach is informed by my own professional background. Let’s see how another educator responds to the question of whether teachers and students can—or should—be friends.


Rick Wormeli’s view: We are friendly but not friends

Rick Wormeli’s reflections on teaching and learning—shared though his books, articles, and workshops—have influenced many educators throughout the world, including me. Here’s his thoughtful response to the question of whether teachers and students should be friends:

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 must remain teacher/student, mentor/mentee, not true friend, and this is wise.

In adult friendships, age differences do not matter, whether we’re 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 creates greater influence on children than it does on other adults.

Balance and boundaries. We have to 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 showing souvenirs to each other. These are acts of human connection that are valuable to both parties. Students mature when adults extend these connections, and teachers enjoy the camaraderie and seeing students as more than one more paper to grade.

Wormeli-highupNotice, 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.

Important distinctions. The clinical social worker Michelle Selby once told me 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, added, “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 must remain the concerned mentor. He should call the child’s parents, health officials, a school counselor, or Child Protective Services after the call, if warranted. In other words, our adult responsibility for the welfare of the child supersedes any element of friendship forged.

Kids want teachers to be grown-ups. Some teachers dress and act like their students in an 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, always watching how we respond.

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’ve crossed a line and let them apologize.

Wormeli-Rick-MeetIt’s important to be friendly. 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 connected 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.

Excerpted from Classroom Management Q &As: Expert Strategies for Teaching. (Still available!) Used with permission.


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