When I began writing on the theme of friendship between teachers and students, I was all set to encourage the idea. But on deeper thought one can see the many questions and arguments that such a relationship will attract. Is it ethical to be friends with students? Will this attempt to create a comfortable space hinder the professional spirit of a classroom? The very subjective nature of this topic is the biggest source of new arguments. Definitions of ‘friendship’ and what exactly is ‘too friendly’ differs with the person and the situation. However, I have poured out raw thoughts and tried to make some sense of what could be called ‘friendliness as a tool and an approach’.
It is widely accepted among the teacher community that one must create a comfortable environment in classrooms by being a friend to the students. It is also understood that using fear and harassment as a tool to create pressure on students and reap academic results has an adverse impact on a student’s mental wellbeing. So, it is almost indubitable that friendship is an important component in a student-teacher relationship. But how much ‘friendship’ becomes ‘unprofessional’? There is a fine line between friendship and unprofessionalism – the line of professional boundaries of a teacher. A bond that motivates a teacher to give special attention and benefits to a particular student oversteps the professional boundary line.
We had an English teacher in Rajghat Besant School who minded this line beautifully. We called her ‘Upma Di’. She was very approachable and easy to speak to, inside and outside the classroom. She welcomed students to discuss anything that bothered them and even asked for regular feedback for her classroom sessions. However, on matters of work, she remained quite firm. She would reject late submissions, review each essay to give detailed feedback, even tell a student if she felt they could do better in their tests. Years hence, I believe that grade 11 was the one year when I improved my language skills the most while also feeling close to my teacher.
There are two thoughts that arise here. One, classrooms need to be learning-centered, not student-centered. Two, in practical terms, teachers cannot be ‘friends’ with students in the literal sense; but they can definitely be ‘friendly’. While the term ‘friendship’ brings the risk of losing decorum and professionalism, ‘friendliness’ only complements it. It can be seen as something innate to any interpersonal relationship and will help build a certain level of comfort in classrooms.
The appropriate extent of friendliness may be a subjective issue but the benefits are quite objective. It creates a nurturing and fear-free environment for effective learning and interaction. To achieve these desired outcomes, we can view ‘friendliness’ as a tool and an approach. Some teachers in higher secondary schools try to blend in with the students by being their friends. This could be because the likeability of a teacher can increase the chances of students learning better from them. But there is an equally high chance of the students dismissing the teacher as not somebody to worry about if they haven’t delivered the work expected from them. To avoid this, a professional friendliness can help maintain likeability without breaking professional boundaries. Moreover, friendliness can be continually used as an approach in everything a teacher does inside and outside the classroom to connect with students better. Instead of a rigorous effort to be liked by students as their friends, a simple and calm approach of treating them in a friendly manner and welcoming anybody who needs help can give more balanced results.
In my memory, some of the ways my teachers created friendly connections with us were by sharing personal experiences, cracking jokes, asking our likes/dislikes and occasionally taking us for a walk during class. The way a teacher treats a class full of students, shows a lot about their mental image of their jobs to students. We can make out the minimal that a teacher wants us to do and deliver exactly that. But for some teachers, the minimal is no less than consistent and honest efforts. Upma Di didn’t refer to the class as ‘you’. She saw herself just as much a part of the learning process as us. So, she referred to all of us as ‘we’. She also had some frequently used phrases like “I will check and let you know” for something she was unsure of, and “I stand corrected” for whenever she made a mistake. This gave the fair impression that she led the classroom as a facilitator and gave herself the space to learn from her mistakes. Passively absorbing such attitude from her, the class saw more participation as there was less fear about making mistakes. Conclusively, ‘friendliness’ as an approach or tool over ‘friendship’ may be a better way to develop student-teacher relationships and help minimizes the risk of complacency or losing professionalism in educational systems.
The author is an alumnus of Rajghat Besant School, Varanasi. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.