Entering the friend zone as a teacher


Teaching | Monday, October 7, 2013

Entering the friend zone as a teacher

Good teacher = good friend

New teachers are often taught that teachers shouldn’t be students’ friends. But many traits of a good teacher are very similar to being a good friend.

I received a lot of advice as a new teacher.

You know, stuff like “Don’t smile until Thanksgiving.” Those textbook suggestions that the veteran teachers seem to give all newbies.

There’s one bit of advice I’ve slowly changed my stance on. (Not “Don’t smile until Thanksgiving,” though. I break that one the first day of school every year.)

“Don’t be your students’ friend.”

They need you to be their teachers, not their friends, people say. They already have lots of friends.

Yeah, I get that. In fact, that’s how I used to operate. But a couple of experiences have changed the way I see “Don’t be your students’ friend.”

Experience 1: A presenter at a conference I once attended hit me with a quote that surprised me. (I wish I remember who it was because I’d love to give him/her credit.)

“Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”

No way, I thought at the time. Students learn from good teachers because they are masters of their content, have sound pedagogy and deliver quality instruction. Right?

Experience 2: Another conference took a shot at my preconceived notions. This one was the state swimming coaches conference when I coached swimming a few years ago.

A speaker asked us if we thought that it was important that our athletes like us. He divided the room and asked us to move to the side that showed our own philosophies.

I moved to the “Your athletes don’t have to like you” side. Good coaches aren’t always liked if they do the right thing, I thought.

I was surprised to see a majority of these successful coaches on the other side of the room. They included coaches of state champions and one local coach who had won several sectional championships in a row.

My brain was spinning. It was time to rethink my philosophies to see if I needed to change.

After several more years of teaching, here’s the conclusion I’ve come to:

A lot of being a good teacher is being a good friend.

  • A good friend brings a smile to a friend’s face on a rough day.
  • A good friend follows up on issues that are important to that friend (“Hey, how did that go?” “Have you gotten around to that? I know it was important to you.”)
  • A good friend cares about his/her friend’s life and wellbeing.
  • A good friend matters to his/her friends.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about my high school students:

They may not have a lot of good friends. In some ways, I can fill that role.

As a teacher, I do have to maintain my objectivity. I have to grade them and treat them fairly, and I can’t show bias.

But it’s up to me to care about them. That’s my choice.

This school year is off to an unprecedented great start in large part, I believe, because I have made a conscious effort to love my students. To smile. To show them they matter to me.

Really, to be a good friend.

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  • Ken Keene says:

    Thank you for setting the rest of the academic world straight on this point! “Friend” is a perfectly acceptable and desirable relationship between student and teacher.

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