Students, teachers, friendship

Jonathan Dresner alerts me to this very interesting post by New Kid on the Hallway:  How Close is Too Close?  It’s a commentary on this story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about UVA professor James Sofka, who has been disciplined for "inappropriate behavior" with his students.   Do read both pieces.

New Kid has some valuable points on the thin line between mentoring and friendship between undergrads and their professors:

When you’re teaching students who are your own age, that’s one thing. But if you’re teaching students who are 18-21 (as I am), and you’re in your 30s (Sofka is 37; most Ph.D.s I know have been at least 30 when they’ve started full-time jobs), that’s a big difference (or it should be!). I like the vast majority of my students; I care about many of them; I care deeply about a number of them. I would even say that I have loved some of my students (except that "love" is such an ambiguous word in English and even saying that can raise eyebrows if you use the wrong sort of tone; we need all the nuances of the different ancient Greek terms for love, I guess).

But I’m pretty loath to say that I am friends with any of my students. I can be friendly with many of them, and enjoy spending time with them, but to me, friendship requires a certain degree of equality, or parity, that doesn’t exist between students and professors.

Bold emphasis is mine, and I’m in complete agreement with New Kid.   I’ve come, over the years, to have a considerable appreciation for the value of good and healthy boundaries between professors and students. I’d like to think I’m a good mentor, at least to those who actively seek out mentoring. 

I’d like to add a point that New Kid only addresses obliquely.  When I grade and evaluate my students, they need to trust that I am giving them a genuinely honest assessment of their work.  When I write a glowing letter of recommendation for a student transferring to a four-year college, he or she needs to know that what I wrote reflects my real feelings about their work, not my own desire to flatter them or to maintain our personal friendship.  Inappropriate closeness between a teacher and a student makes it far more difficult for a young person to believe in the accuracy and the validity of the feedback they receive.

When I first started teaching full-time at the college, at age 26, I found it quite difficult to draw the distinction between mentor and friend.  My youth and inexperience meant that I didn’t really believe I could mentor those, who, in many cases were only a couple of years younger than I was.  In addition to being insecure about what I had to offer professionally, I was eager to be liked.  When I was tenure-track, I was anxious to have strong student evaluations, knowing the vital role they play in getting tenure.  As I’ve aged in the past dozen years, I’ve also (I hope) matured.  The gap between me and the average age of my students has gone from five years to more than fifteen.  I’ve finished a Ph.D, gotten tenure, and learned infinitely more about what it means to be a teacher. 

I’m less interested in being liked and more interested in being of service to the young people with whom I work.  As my own confidence and maturity have increased, my own need for their validation has diminished correspondingly.  I am much more able to focus on their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual needs when I am not in need of their approval.  Most of them have plenty of friends.  They don’t need another one.  They need a teacher who will be honest with them, and a few of them, those who choose to seek me out, need a mentor whom they can trust to put their growth first.  After years of trial and error and mistakes, I’d like to think I’ve become that sort of professional.

I hope that Professor Sofka has a similar opportunity.

5 thoughts on “Students, teachers, friendship

  1. When I graduated from college, by senior thesis advisor, with whom I had had an unmistakably friendly but still professional relationship (a relationship I would not have called a friendship, and neither would she have called it that) made an explicit move in the direction of turning our relationship into a friendship. I’m glad she did — she’s been a close friend now for over (gulp!) a quarter century.

    When I was applying to graduate schools in my senior year, she wrote glowing letters on my behalf. When I was applying to graduate schools again two years ago, I decided it would compromise our friendship to ask her to write me another letter, so I had to dig out other people from 25 years ago to write for me.

    There are gains and losses whenever a relationship changes. And when I stop to think about it, when she was my advisor and I was her student, I am glad it never crossed my mind that we could be “normal friends”. It would have complicated and contaminated that relationship.

    Still, I am pleased to be able to call her my friend now.

  2. Hugo,

    You write well on this topic. Although I’m no longer teaching in a classroom, I still work with teens, through AYUSA and through my own teens’ friendships.

    You’re right that they don’t need us to be their friends, such as they are friends with their peers. They need to be able to come to us for a more mature perspective on things and to look to us for guidance as they learn about life.

    I am in the process of taking on more responsibilities with AYUSA’s local area. The lady I am replacing is a good, Christian lady. But she also has a tendency to be high-stress and to be very stern with the teens who come over in our program. My style of dealing with the kids is more laid-back and mentoring. Through years of working with teens, I’ve found that to be much more beneficial than being hard-nosed with them, especially when dealing with one who is making bad choices. (That’s not to say I’m not hard-nosed when the need arises. My 17yo can attest to that. 😉 )

    You have to develop your approach to fit the situation. You work differently with your college students than you do with your youth group at church. But in neither instance is your current role that of a friend. There is time for friendship later, if the relationship is maintained or re-established in their adulthood.

  3. hi, jonathan this is my first time in the web,iam colombian english teacher i want to make lot of friends around the world if you are interesting please write me i am going to tell about me and my country i hope know you very soon.

  4. Jeiler (I just love the Colombian fascination for the letter “J”), I know your beautiful and intoxicating (in the best sense) country well, and hope to know it better. Where are you in Colombia?

  5. This is one more example of how feminism is destroying relationships. I like that phrase “inappropriate behavior”, right out of the morals committee, the vice squad and the Taliban. It brings to mind an image of the Inquisition with your usual cast of feminists passing judgement on what is “appropriate”, backed up with the usual secret police apparatus: informers in the classroom, hysterical witch hunts, and jack booted thuggery.

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