Are teachers supposed to be friends with their students?
Today, while monitoring group work for one of my middle school classes, one of my students inadvertently addressed me as ‘buddy.’ I gently reminded her, “I’m not your buddy.” She seemed shocked, “But I thought we were friends!” I said, “I am not your friend; I am your teacher.”
Another student then decided that I must not like them because I refused to be their friend. Admittedly, this bothered me. I have 111 of the best students in the world. I teach them and laugh with them and pray for them. They are more to me than just a platform upon which I can display my pedagogical brilliance (as if!). They are human beings made in the Image of God, and the love of Christ in me compels me to love them and seek their good. I hope that each of my students can see that on some level.
Even so, I do not think of my students as my friends. ‘Friend’ is a peer distinction. I don’t grade my friends’ homework or make them chant Latin paradigms. I don’t prevent them from tipping their chairs or make sure that they are wearing official school uniforms. I don’t write them hall passes, and I don’t correct their grammar (at least, most of the time).
Rather, the teacher-student relationship is a relationship of authority. I tell my students what to do, and they obey me. This does not preclude me from hearing their concerns and sharing details from my life. But it does mean that, whether they like me or not, they are expected to follow my instructions.
Yet many in my generation and theirs chafe at this notion. We want to be friends with our parents, friends with our managers, and friends with our teachers. We slap the ‘friend’ label on just about everyone. Our relationship spectrum is reduced to, “Everyone I like is my friend; everyone I do not like is not my friend.”
This is not true. The best authority-based relationships function on love and respect. I tell my students what to do because I love them and want them to grow. Yet, in doing so, I do not seek to unnecessarily embarrass or criticize them. It’s very important to me that my students feel safe in my classroom. I take that initiative to love and respect my students and work to maintain it whether or not such feelings are ever earnestly reciprocated.
So, I’m not being mean when I tell my students that I am not their friend. I’m not meant to be their friend. I’m meant to be their teacher. And for me, being their teacher means that I have to love them and sacrifice for them and model a life of integrity in front of them. It means that, in putting their needs before my own, I must cling to the Gospel and walk in humility and graciousness. It means that I must discipline them in an effort to build them up. It means that I must hate their sin and love their sanctification. It means that my ultimate desire should be for their benefit and success.
So, I may ‘just’ be their teacher. But, to me, that’s quite enough.