Relationships & Friendships in the Classroom

Inspired by a recent questionnaire related to relationships in the (English language learning) classroom.

Relationships inside and outside the classroom


Relationships between teacher and students are inherent to any classroom or educational setting. Teachers should maintain relationships with students outside of class by being accessible to them in order to provide additional assistance as needed. If a relationship (a connection) turns into a friendship through normal discourse, then behavior associated with being a friend would be expected outside the classroom. But by friendship, I don’t mean a friendly relation or intimacy as defined in the questionnaire, but rather the state of being a friend. In my view, the state of being a friend has more to do with building strong ties (as defined below). IMHO, a friendly relation or intimacy is simply being friendly.

Relationships that remain in the classroom; that is, relationships that are purposeful to the goals and objectives of a class may be friendly but should not be labeled necessarily as friends. The reason why these types of relationships aren’t labeled as friends is because the reason the relationship exists in the first place is because of some outside force (e.g., a college course). In contrast, friends seek each other out without the confines of discussing a mandatory topic (e.g., content related to a college course) at a specific time and place. Additionally, usually students have to pay for classes, so the idea that students sharing a classroom with a teacher inherently makes them all friends is misguided.

Friendships between students and teachers can and do emerge all of the time. Attending a student’s wedding or some other celebration is a great thing. Even more satisfying is when friendships emerge after students have entered the profession. Building a collegial working relationship who is also a friend can be quite rewarding. Even if friendships don’t emerge, collegiality, cooperation, and collaboration that stems from relationships with prior students can be equally gratifying.
Being a friend is usually not strictly dichotomous (e.g., this person is or is not my friend), although sometimes it feels that way, but rather grows and fades, then grows back, and so on over time.

Strong and weak ties


Like all relationships, teacher-student relationships can be either strong or weak. A strong relationship or tie, is one where individuals feel confident to discuss important or personal information with, provide each other with needed support, have many similar interests and opinions, and actively seek out each other regularly. In contrast, a weak tie is a relationship that does not share these qualities. A teacher-student relationship is a careful balance between strong and weak ties; that is, a relationship that falls along a strong and weak tie continuum. For instance, maintaining strong ties is important when students need help and have the confidence to share personal information when it relates to achieving the objectives of the class. Strong ties are less important when teacher and students share similar interests and when they seeking each other out on a regular basis because this does not automatically transfer into a more effective, efficient, and engaging learning environment for the student. Maintaining weak ties is important when teachers and students have the confidence to share diverse opinions and perspectives with each other. Thus, maintaining weak ties between teacher and students is extremely important to the extent that students have the confidence to share opposing views and concerns with their teacher, knowing that the teacher will maintain a respectful relationship.

Students can become unmotivated if the wrong aspects of either a strong or weak ties result. For example, forming strong ties where teachers and students agree and seek each other out to the degree that other students feel marginalized or neglected, can cause a problem. In extreme cases, these kinds of strong ties may lead to nepotism – favoritism to close friends by those with power or influence. Teachers and students who maintain weak ties to the extent that the teacher no longer is accessible in helping students achieve their academic goals, can lead to problems as well.

“Good” and “bad” relationships in the classroom


In order for a teacher to reflect and comment on a relationship with students, both the teacher and the student must provide input and understanding together. A relationship is not one way, but rather a mutual intelligible belief. A teacher cannot infer that a relationship is “good” or “bad” unless there is a bidirectional, communicative effort between both parties (i.e., teacher and student) about how each other feels. If there is no reciprocity or understanding of how the other feels, then there is little basis for a relationship. Also, since each relationship with students is different – as a result of each student being unique – it’s impossible to generalize when assessing such a subjective notion that includes some many individuals (i.e., students) who each have different personal attributes. Finally, there are external factors that also impact the kind of relationship a teacher and student may have. Some of these factors may include home environment, prior experiences, school administrators, to name a few.

Professional ethics


Professional ethics in education should emerge throughout the curriculum in the form of values: respect, honesty, transparency, commitment, etc. Instead of “teaching ethics”, educators should set the example.

How do you view the notions of relationships, friendships, etc. in the classroom?