Can a teacher be a friend to students?

Henry Stewart's picture
Yesterday at the Oppi Festival of Education Sugatra Mitra, asked what the role of the teacher in the future was, said “to be a friend”, “a friend who leads students to discover learning, doesn’t teach them”. He specifically said not a guide, but a friend.

The different reaction to this from the audience here and from those following on Twitter back in the UK has left me wondering if this is a key cultural difference between, at least, Finland and the UK. When @MrMichaelShaw asked "Should teachers’ main aim be to become their pupils’ “friend”" the responses united commentators who more often disagree:

@johndavidblake: I couldn't be friends with my students, we disagree too strongly abt who is the best X Factor judge.
@Mr_Chas: Never EVER, please !
@edujdw: in short, no. Teachers can be friendly, but can never be 'a friend'.

My colleague Janet Downs commented that the idea of teachers being a friend was "unprofessional".

"Friends don't set homework"

@tombennett71: "If a pupil needs to be directed/ reprimanded, being a friend is a huge impediment. The word we need here is teacher. Friends don't set homework"

But nobody I have asked who is Finnish have expressed dismay about the idea. Indeed I asked one young Finn this morning what was great about her school and, unprompted, she said "The teachers were our friends". Now I don't think she meant that they had become close companions, that they would invite her for dinner. But it was certainly a statement that they were on her side.

In the UK talking of being "a friend" seems to UK minds raise issues of safeguarding and of reducing their authority. But I know students whose friendship with specific teachers kept them on track. At one high-performing school near me in Hackney every member of staff (from the headteacher to the caretaker) establishes a close relationship with a small group of students. The idea is that every young person in the school has at least one adult who they see as on their side.

I'd love your thoughts. Can a teacher be a friend to their students? Should they?
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Tracie's picture
Sat, 12/04/2014 - 12:01

This devalues the term friend. I choose my friends carefully they are privy to the real me, see me when I'm vulnerable scared ecstatic pissed! Students are not my friends. I am supportive caring I empathise and support AND some think I'm their friend. I'm not I'm their tutor. As in hackney I have a close bond with them. They tell me their worries their fears but this is a professional relationship one of trust which is not friendship.
Why are we scared of not being friends? Smacks of parents who want to be friends with their children. We're not we are parents. Dilution of friendship and fear if rejection? Insecurity?

John Winstanley's picture
Sat, 12/04/2014 - 12:05

Surely we can't generically say all teachers should be friends with all students or otherwise. Every teacher is going to have their own style that will work better with some students and not others.

As a former pupil (like everyone else was) I think I was more likely to internalise reprimands from my teachers who I had an element of friendship with.

I do like the idea of staff in the Hackney school forming friendships, as long as it doesn't lead to favouritism.

Phil Taylor's picture
Sat, 12/04/2014 - 12:05

Some of the best teachers I've known have been very friendly towards the young people they teach - especially towards those who need friendship most. So they will remember things about them and address them quite personally, perhaps using a nickname, in the way that a friend would. I think these are often the teachers that kids remember.

But other equally effective teachers maintain a certain distance and would be most uncomfortable if they were expected to develop any kind of personal relationship with their students as, probably, would the students. But these teachers are well respected by students, who recognise that they are good at the job.

'It takes all sorts...' which is one of the facts of school life that has been sadly forgotten since the National Curriculum, obsessive testing, Ofsted et al.

Henry Stewart's picture
Sat, 12/04/2014 - 12:13

Discussing this one Finn commented that, for teachers in Finland, its up to them whether they Facebook friend their pupils - something which would be seen as inappropriate in England. As she put it: "The teacher must first be the 'responsible adult' in the relationship but, of course, they can be friends."

FJM's picture
Mon, 14/04/2014 - 13:28

Facebook: definitely not! My adult FB friends are bad enough, thousands of snaps of meals and selfies, so I can do without millions more fuzzy and out-of-focus pictures of adolescents in drunken poses. More seriously, I am sure almost every school forbids FB friendships between staff and pupils.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 12/04/2014 - 12:14

I'm wondering if there's a linguistic difference here? Do the Finns mean "friend" as in being mates (I doubt it, actually) or do they mean "friend" as in an adult with the best interests of their pupils at heart, like a mentor?

The tutorial system in English schools is supposed to encourage the latter - the group tutor is supposed to be the first person a pupil approaches if s/he has a problem or needs to talk. This is the "close relationship" which Henry describes at a Hackney school.

But it's not the "close relationship" which occurs when teachers and pupils get too close and professional boundaries are crossed. Or when a teacher's "close relationship" stops being objective and becomes one where a teacher always takes a particular child's side against other staff or undermines the authority of other teachers (anecdote - I remember being told any boy giving me discipline problems was "a good lad in the workshop" - this implied I was the problem, not the boy).

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 12/04/2014 - 14:57

The tradition in the English education system of 'Masters' and 'pupils' inhabiting different worlds with clear boundaries runs deep. It has echoes in the 'upstairs/downstairs' worlds of life in our aristocratic stately homes. It has a darker side in our public schools system in relation to 'prefects and fags'.

In general, friendliness and easy but respectful good relationships between teachers and their pupils is a good thing because communication is so important in the learning process. Pupils have to be open and clear about their cognitive difficulties for the teacher to able to help.

The boundaries in terms of emotional and sexual relationships seem clear, but there are others that are just as important. Friends can share secrets but pupils and their teachers can't. I recall many times when a pupil has asked me if they can tell me something 'in confidence'. This is tricky because it is often something very important that needs to be divulged. This is the counsellor's dilemma, but the teacher has to say "no, it depends what it is". There are some things that a teacher may not keep confidential.

However, it is far better to have a school where 'the counsellor's dilemma' might arise from time to time than one where formal barriers result in pupils never asking such a question, or never admitting to their teachers that they don't understand something.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Sun, 13/04/2014 - 02:25

How would a parent react if their child referred to a teacher as 'their friend'?
For the more puerile TV watchers amongst us, isn't the most unprofessional aspect of 'BBC3 Bad Education's Alfie Wickers character is his desperate attempt to be the friend of his students?
Respect is taken for granted from friends but from a teacher to a student it's empowering because its earned and so all the more precious.
I would say that respect, concern and aspiration for their students are implicit pastoral characteristics in the title 'Teacher' (in no small way due to the Every Child Matters policies in 21st century Britain,

Friendship can be fleeting, destructive and volatile and is always ALWAYS conditional.. "Teacher ship" is professional, supportive, impartial and respectful. It shouldn't be demoted to join the banalities of children's social media streams.

FJM's picture
Mon, 14/04/2014 - 13:23

As someone has said, 'friendly but not a friend' and I would add, not familiar. It is a little bit like a child describing a parent as a friend, something which I find odd. A parent is a parent and not a friend, though they share some characteristics. Similarly, a teacher is a teacher and not a friend, but that does no preclude being sympathetic, approachable and willing to listen to a child's concerns. Some older pupils, sixth formers mostly, are mature enough to approach a teacher whom they respect and talk to as an adult about various questions not necessarily directly related to their particular subject. (I do not mean child-protection matters, but less contentious things such as how to handle an awkward friend, career choices, difficulties with another teacher and so on.) It is healthy for young adults to have an adult whom they can trust and respect who is not a parent, and, sadly for some, they don't have a father or mother to turn to. Part of becoming an adult is learning to have friends who may be much older, as most young people are only a few years from working with much older people. Usually I recoil form the word'non-judgmental', which can mean letting anything go, but it is possible to be detached when listening to a pupil and this can help.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 14/04/2014 - 13:48

Quite so FJM - I agree with you entirely.

Rupert Higham's picture
Tue, 15/04/2014 - 08:25

When I was at school I'd say that friendships with teachers were vital lifelines for me in an otherwise hostile environment. I felt I had more in common with them than with my peers: they were prepared to talk to me about ideas when other students avoided doing so for fear of appearing uncool. They didn't give a damn about status and how they looked to others, and I shared that (largely) with them. They were engaging and compassionate in a place full of bullying and studied indifference. They weren't comparable with friendships with other children; they were as unique as the people and situations involved.

One understanding of professionalism is about having strict rules and standards in place that prevent abuses and ensure probity under external scrutiny; it is based on the idea that anything that could go wrong, or be imagined to do so, must be avoided. My friendships with teachers would probably have failed this test. Another understanding of professionalism is based in recognising both one's role, and one's common humanity with children and adults alike; this test, I think, my friendships passed. It is this understanding that I subscribe to, and I'm very grateful to those teacher friends who helped me through a tough stage of life and opened my eyes to the possibility of more beyond.

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