Friday, June 4, 2010

Teacher/Student relationships

"I think the teacher sleeps in school," said Mollie. "I think she stays there all night long."

"What a dumb idea," said Gary. "Teachers don't sleep in school."

"Mrs. Marsh does," said Mollie. "She's always there when we come. And she's always there when we leave. I think the classroom is her house."

-from "My Teacher Sleeps in School" by Leatie Weiss.
What should the student-teacher relationship be? What kind of boundaries should be observed? This was a question that we discussed during my TESOL training. Although we were referring mainly to adults teaching adults, teaching children should also be considered, of course. Continue reading/-

I remember in elementary school how odd it was to think of teachers having a real life. That is why the quote above seems so appropriate. Of course I was shy, but it seemed so unnerving to run into a teacher in the grocery store, or even in the hallway when I had moved up a grade. And this isn't because I disliked my teachers; on the contrary it was like running into someone you had a crush on and not knowing what to say.

In general, it makes sense when teaching children for the adult to set the boundaries, since the children aren't even aware of danger.

I remember being sick on Valentine's Day in second grade, and my teacher paying a "housecall" with my Valentines and a stack of library books. Very odd to think that the teacher had been at my house. Yet she knew exactly what I needed. These occasional kind gestures are still within the realm of appropriate behavior.

Junior high, high special relationships with teachers. Outside of the classroom, I mean. But I remember that I always wanted to talk about my family, or my church; bring in personal aspects of my life. In a way, I did want my worlds to overlap. If we had to pick a topic for writing or a presentation, I tried to choose something of personal meaning to me. Making projects personal is always a good way to motivate students. We think of teenagers as so uncommunicative sometimes, but have we really tried to find out what they're interested in?

University was a strange mix of huge lectures where the professor never learned my name (or face, most likely) and small classes where I met the professors' kids when we had department events.

Culture plays a role, too. My Russian instructors are far more likely to inquire after my health, how I'm dressed, or my living conditions, than any American. Oh, and marital status, of course. Of course, they are partly worried about us living in a foreign country, but I think it is a mentality in general. On the other hand, there have been very few tea parties or social events of that nature.

When I was in college, I tutored some immigrants in ESL. There was one Russian "bride" who seemed very homesick sometimes. The policy of the learning center was that they did all the phone calls and coordinating, and tutors/tutorees didn't have each other's contact information.

Olga suggested that we have class in a cafe sometime instead of in the learning center, but it wasn't really allowed. Of course, we could have arranged it on our own without asking for permission, but I didn't push it.

Eventually her husband wasn't pleased with her progress and didn't let her come anymore. But I always felt some regret that I hadn't tried to reach out more. What did it matter that we had a "professional" relationship? At the end of the day, a person remembers who smiled at him that day; who asked how he was doing, who noticed something that no one else did.

I tutor a Russian women here who works at the orphanage. I go to her home where we sit in her kitchen, and she is usually still in her pajamas.

When I taught for corporate clients, I had the same sort of regret as when I had worked with the immigrants. All the coordinating was done by a secretary; I didn't have any direct contact with the students outside of class. We sometimes talked about interesting life issues in class, but there was always a boundary we couldn't cross.

Now I think of them and wish that I knew what had happened to the single mother and her look-alike daughter, or the middle-aged woman who woke up at 4:30 am to get ready to go to the plant.

I don't really like the whole personal vs. professional concept. I want to share about my life with the people I work with, no matter how formal the situation. At the same time, if it doesn't feel appropriate for the workplace, then maybe it isn't so helpful for personal conversations either. Gossip doesn't get milder based on context.

Anyway, boundaries are good and serve a purpose. But sometimes you have to take risks, too.


  1. I have been teaching in Moscow for over 7 years and have come across various situations, both in school and in student's homes. First rule I have is never to betray a student's trust and I have not. I had a student once who was a nice looking married woman and we had class in her flat and often she would be dressed only in pajamas and a bathrobe. There was nothing implied by her, just an early morning class before she left for work, we had classes for about three years I guess, so she knew she could trust me.

    Another time. I had a 17 year old student tell me that her father said it was OK if we went out, took me completely by surprise and I was at a loss for words and I'm afraid I hurt the girls feelings when I told her that it was not allowed by the school, I wish I could have handled that situation better, but I learned.

    Most schools I have worked with have rules against meeting students outside of class, but I have always told the schools that on my own time I will meet who ever I wish to meet, I have always told my students if they have any problems to feel free to let me know and I will try to help. I consider my students my friends and like friends we socialize sometimes. My students know me and I know them, they know I have rules that I follow myself and my number one rule is never betray the trust of any student and I never will. But I have classes in the park, lake beach, even in the Moscow zoo. One of my students was going to Miami once, so we had a class at a nightclub. A teacher has to know themselves and know what they can and can not do, that is how you stay out of trouble. I always have had good professional along with friendly relationships with all my students, even the children. I'm kind of proud when I go to a school I used to work at and the students all want to see me and talk. They consider me as much of a friend as they do a teacher.

  2. How beautiful. I agree. And your post came at such an extraordinary time. I just got an e-mail from my former Russian professor that has me sitting with tears streaming down my face.

    My HS Russian teacher was a wonderful inspirational woman whose husband was a Russian professor at the University. Eleni meant so much to me. I really, truly loved her. So, why - when I graduated from college, and rather "chose" to direct my efforts toward theater, rather than Russian, did I let these wonderful people slip from my life?

    Why when I finally went to Russia, didn't I write to them and let them know? Send a post card?

    I finally got around to it. I googled them to find their address and found - Eleni passed away this past September. How my heart hurts to think I didn't tell her what she meant to me. How sorry I am that when I was in Moscow I thought of her, remembered all her stories, all she taught me, but didn't write or contact her.

    I am glad, at least, that I wrote to her husband to tell him how much she meant to me. I only had him for a couple of classes; he was a great prof, but it was Eleni who influenced my life, who made HS bearable, who let me spend every lunch break with her in her office. What ever was the matter with me? Maybe, though I loved her, I didn't know quite how to have an out-of-classroom relationship.

    I wish you'd met the Russian bride at a cafe....but we can't go back. I guess that is one of the great griefs of life. All we can do is try to make a better decision next time.

  3. This is all assuming everything's platonic. I don't think I would feel comfortable meeting a male student in his home for lessons. I suppose the advantage of a learning center is that you have some neutral territory in case you DON'T want to become more friendly.

    Post-cards seem harmless enough. And everyone is on the Internet nowadays, so sending a note every now and then wouldn't be overstepping boundaries.


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