“The biggest mistake I made when I was a younger teacher and that I see other less experienced teachers make is that they get too close to their students.”Yesterday, one of the middle school teachers that I have a high level of respect for made this comment in conversation. We were talking about the fact that even though I’m not any less committed to my job as a teacher, since becoming a father being a teacher is not as high a priority in life. Problems at work still occur, but they don’t stay in my head when I go home like they used to before becoming a father.
People have different ideas of what it means to be a teachers. There is that “Mr. Holland’s’ Opus,” fantasy of being a teacher where you make deep emotional connections with your students and you change their lives. A lot of young teachers, including myself years ago, attempt to chase these kinds of deep and meaningful relationships with our students. The problem is that for most of our students, this is not what they need from us.
We are teachers. We aren’t parents. Teachers should never love their students as parents love their kids. Students, even in the best situations, don’t really care about their teachers as people. It’s easy to forget this especially as a young teacher.
When you are a young teacher in the school, you are often walking into a situation when there is also a far amount of older teachers. Students see a fresh face who understands their cultural references and likes the same music they do and they get excited. As a teacher and human being, this positive attention feels great. Your kids get comfortable with you, tell you their personal concerns and issues and you feel like you are really connecting with them and helping them in a meaningful way.
The difficult thing is that this dynamic makes it hard to maintain authority, and control especially when conflicts arise. The younger students get, the more difficult it is to have a relationship with a teacher that is both authoritative and buddy-buddy. The switch between the two, which may seem logical to a teacher, can feel like betrayal even to the most mature high school students.
I’m not advocating that we don’t foster meaningful bonds with out students but there is a line that should not be crossed. The difficulty is that there is no black and white rules in understand these boundaries in the relationships that we foster with our students.
While there are legal ways to look at these boundaries, there is a broader, philosophical question that helps us guide the way we interact with our students. Who truly benefits? Are your interactions with your students more about their educational growth as a human being or your social and emotional gratification? While friendships should have a level of equity, student-teacher relationships do not.
We should feel professional satisfaction from our work with our students but emotional support and social stimulus should not come from our students. To do so takes advantage of our place of authority.
Teachers serve students’ needs, not the other way around. To teach our students with equity, compassion, and professionalism, we need to keep a level of distance so we can make clear decisions as professionals. The balance between relating to our students and getting too close to our students can be difficult, but it's an important issue to struggle with.
Keeping this distance may not be as fun, but having "fun" isn't what this gig is about. Like I tell my students, the satisfaction from hard work and good choices made as a citizen will last far longer than "fun." And the same thing can be said about teaching.