Of Friendship and Boundaries in Teaching


“Grading papers is always better with a beer.”

I posted this photo on my Facebook wall last night with the above caption, and within hours I had 38 likes and several comments.

I mean, 38 is unusually large for me, anyway.

A remarkable number of likes and comments came from my former students:

“We just like to know you’re human!”

“Who would have thought. You drink beer!”

One even remarked slyly that he is now questioning the grades I gave him.

Ha. Ha.

The funny thing is, while I NEVER accept Facebook requests from my students while they are still my students, I don’t feel too bad about accepting the requests once they graduate. It’s an easy way to keep in touch and sometimes they contact me that way for recommendation requests.

I guess it’s still kind of weird — I would probably die first before friending Mr. Murray, my formidable sophomore English teacher, on Facebook.

But then again Mr. Murray would probably die before opening a Facebook account.

Still, this Facebook experience reminds me of how important it is to maintain appropriate boundaries with students. High schoolers, because they are transitioning into adulthood and (some) are starting to really mature, discover that their relationships with “grown ups” are changing. They no longer relate to adults, especially young adults, as children do.  They can have much more “equal” conversations. The older they get, and the younger their teachers are, the closer our experiences seem to be.

In many ways, the ACE program leverages the youth of its teachers as a way to reach out and connect to students. And it works a lot of the time.

But still I think it’s really healthy and important for young teachers (well, really, ALL teachers) to realize that we are not called to be our students’ friend per se.

Friendly, yes.

Friend, no.

I see a lot of teachers crossing this boundary (hopefully by mistake) all of the time– whether because  they want to feel “cool” or they think this will help them connect with their students better. I myself struggle with this too. Especially during my first year of teaching, when I was barely four years older than my oldest students, I had to pretend I was very different in age in order to establish an appropriate distance.

source: ace.nd.edu

And yet I want to be real with my students. I don’t want to be condescending or distant.

But I also know that they have plenty friends their own age. And they don’t need me to be a friend.

They need me to be a teacher–dare I say it?– a role-model.

I have known teachers who converse with their students online via Skype or games or such things, and others who, thinking they are helping troubled teens, try to take on a student’s personal problems.

But this isn’t healthy, nor is it appropriate.

As Aristotle indicates in his Nichomachean Ethics, true friendship implies giving and receiving on an equal level. This equality (and a resulting emotional closeness) is NOT helpful between teacher and student. The teacher and the student are not “equal”– not because the teacher is better than the student, but because the teacher and the student have very different roles and therefore should not relate to one another as if they had the same role.

Part of what can make teachers so effective is the unique relationship we can develop with our kids. It’s a personal relationship, but it is also professional. This closeness (I see them every single day and care about them a LOT) and distance (I refuse every silly invitation I have ever received to ‘hang out’) provides a place where students can be uniquely respected.

Sometimes family members and friends are too close. Sometimes a student needs a responsible, caring adult to speak to, or at least to interact with on a consistent basis.

In some cases I know that I am the most responsible and respectful adult a student of mine may interact with on a given day, due to difficult family situations. As much as that student may want to be my friend, what that student really needs is for me to be a caring and responsible teacher.

Unfortunately, a lot of high schoolers (and teachers!) aren’t mature enough yet to realize this. I knew several teachers when I was in high school who ignored appropriate boundaries, thinking that they were doing the right thing and really “just connecting more” with their students. These teachers usually ended up being pretty popular but usually pretty ineffective. They had the “fun” classes in which students were not really challenged–nor did they learn much of anything other than unnecessary details about the teacher’s personal life.

Really loving someone often involves understanding and maintaining appropriate boundaries with that person. These boundaries vary depending upon the type of love involved. In all of our relationships–not just the more obvious ones with peers and family members and significant others–we should step back and discern what is truly good. Our coworkers, our bosses, our students, our teachers all deserve our unselfish love, a love that is rooted in the truth.