The Teacher-Student Relationship (A How-Not-To)

My fellow new blogger Matthew Moran claims to have been the worst first year teacher ever, at least with respect to his expectations for himself. I won’t get into an anti-bragging (is there a word for that?) match with him, but I certainly have a lot of things about my first year (or two or three) that are pretty embarrassing to look back on. I will consider one type of early career mistake here, which revolves around my misunderstanding of the proper relationship between student and teacher.

The thing is that I wanted to be buddies with my students. There’s a boundary that needs to exist between student and teacher, and I did not understand that at first. Or perhaps “boundary” is the wrong word; I didn’t have a clear enough picture of the difference between the role of the student and the role of the teacher. Someone has to be the adult and I didn’t always play the part.

Here’s one example. Dominique (not her real name) was a seventh grader in my first teaching year. At some point during my first or second year (she was my student both years) we got into the habit of writing letters to each other once in a while. She wrote about the kind of things that seemed deep and important to a somewhat mature middle schooler; the only specific topic I can recall is her complaining about the immaturity of one of her classmates. I’m sure I replied with stories about how I had felt about things at her age, how things get better as you grow up, that sort of thing.

Dominque’s parents, especially her dad, were very friendly with me, and my wife and I had dinner at their house at least once. One day I got the idea that it would be nice to spend some time with Dominique alone outside of school. (I know you are getting nervous reading this; please know that the story doesn’t end anywhere near as badly as you might be imagining.) So I called over to her house and asked her dad if it would be okay if I took her for a hike, just the two of us. He thought that was fine, and so did Dominique. So one weekend day we drove to a mountain in our general area and climbed to the top, where we had a lovely view of San Francisco and the surrounding area. I can picture the day quite clearly though I don’t remember what we talked about. It was fun but never happened again for whatever reason. Dominque went to a different school for ninth grade and we fell out of touch. I think she stopped by my classroom to say hello once during high school, and that’s it.

There are obviously similar stories of teachers and students that end far, far worse than this one. I never had the slightest intention of, for example, having sex with Dominique. I think I wanted to be something like a big brother to her. (I assume that her father understood this as well, otherwise how could he possibly have agreed to our day out together?) But I understand now, many years later, that my relationship with her wasn’t appropriate, however pure I may have felt my intentions to be. The relationship I was fostering was that of equals, more or less, and that’s not what students and teachers are.

There were a few other, smaller, situations like this in my early teaching years. I once offered to take another female student, call her Stella, out to dinner as a thank you for a bunch of things she had helped me with after school (or something like that). She wrote me a long, apologetic note telling me that she wasn’t comfortable with it, though she wasn’t sure why. Looking back, I feel horrible for putting her in a position where she felt she had to apologize to me for what must have felt like me “asking her out”. Again, I had no intentions beyond sharing a meal, but I just didn’t see at the time how inappropriate that would look to pretty much anyone other than myself. Stella’s response gave me pause, and probably started me down the road to finally having a societally-acceptable understanding of the teacher-student relationship.

Despite my insistence that I was well-intentioned, there are likely readers who still think I had some illicit goals, hidden deep inside. Perhaps the best I can do to convince you otherwise is to point out that it wasn’t only female students that I tried to have an “older brother” relationship with.

(Not that inappropriate relations between an adult and a child of the same gender can’t happen, but please understand that I’ve never felt any attraction to other males, except for a man-crush on George Clooney, and seriously, who can blame me for that?)

On the plus side, I do think I did this right, at least once. In my fourth year (I was now teaching high school along with middle school) I came up with the idea of taking a small number of my older male students on a camping trip. I invited three, and two were able to come. Bear in mind again that the parents of these boys trusted me to spend time (in this case, days) alone with their children. I had built up a lot of trust in the school community, and I was worthy of it. I wasn’t going to intentionally hurt any of my students, and if I didn’t know quite where the line between us should have been, I did know that it was well short of physical intimacy or discussion of such topics.

We had a great guys’ weekend (no beer, no drugs, or anything like that–I made darn sure the boys understood that before I agreed to take them). We didn’t perform any “rituals” or what have you, but I like to think that I gave these young men a sort of rite-of-passage experience that American society in general has long since lost interest in. My favorite memory from this trip was lying in a meadow, in grass tall enough that we couldn’t see each other, and just listening to the sounds of the environment around us. Tremendously peaceful. After the trip these two boys remained among my biggest fans, writing heartfelt thanks in my yearbook when they graduated a year or two later.

(One of the many things I understand now that I didn’t back then is that having students be your ‘fans’ is not an appropriate goal for a teacher either, but I can’t take this story in all the directions it seems to want to go, so I’m going to let that line stay as is.)

Goodness. I had originally intended to write about many types of mistakes I made as a young teacher but I dare say this post is (way past?) long enough. Let me try to at least finish up this topic.

It is a considerable piece of irony that when I was a high school student myself I was once invited, along with a few friends, to go to a (San Francisco) Giants game with one of my teachers and I felt uncomfortable about the invitation. I don’t think any of us ever ended up going; I know that I didn’t. So I had at one point understood something about teacher-student boundaries that it would take me another dozen or so years to figure out again.

So, what else do I know now that I didn’t know as a young teacher? As I said earlier, I need to be an adult for my students. We can be friendly (and I certainly like to be), but we can’t be friends. I am a role model for them, not a peer. And I say this without ego; we’re all role models for our students, whether we like it or not. The idea is to be a good role model, as best we can.

Also, while my vision of what kind of relationship I should have with my students has changed, I still feel very strongly that relationships are a huge part of teaching. Perhaps it took becoming a parent myself (in my fifth year of teaching) for me to realize how good it can feel to be an authority figure for young people. They don’t always love you for it at the moment, but I’ve given up being surprised when a student I’ve been “tough” with ends up really appreciating it, sometimes as soon as the next day.


A) I don’t mean to imply for a moment that I’m a “tough” teacher. That’s not my strong suit. But every now and then I feel like I get it right, and it used to surprise me that students like to have boundaries set for them.

B) It strikes me that this entire post was about my students and myself outside of the classroom. I’ve made my share of mistakes in the classroom as well, to be sure. Perhaps I’ll discuss some of those in another post one of these days.


3 comments on “The Teacher-Student Relationship (A How-Not-To)

  1. Alpha says:

    There’s a trap, there, that many young teachers fall into. And I actually really mean young as in age: A lot of young people getting into teaching may not even really grok “professional” distance in a regular workplace, much less the mentor-student distance that one must maintain as an education professional. Some young teachers I’ve met are very uncomfortable taking on an authority position.

    By the time I got into teaching myself, I was already a parent and so knew a little more about that authority. However, the one that still gets me is the “I want to take them home and take care of them” parental-feeling trap.

  2. […] has a blog named **It’s all math.**. The fourth post for the Blogging Initiation is titled **The Teacher-Student Relationship (A How-Not-To)“** and the author sums it up as follows: **This is the first in what could be a long series […]

  3. Dan Grossberg (yes, that one) says:

    For “anti-bragging” how about “one-downs-man-ship”?

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