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Teacher-Student Relationships: When Are You Too Close?

Developing relationships with our students is essential for effective learning and risk-taking.

We all strive to embed a feeling of safety and comfort in our environments that promotes meaningful discussions that hinge on personal disclosure and honesty.

Although different subjects and age groups have different thresholds of appropriateness, the older the students get the more necessary the need for healthy boundaries and an understanding that although we care for our students deeply, we are not their friends.

One of the hardest lessons I had to learn as a younger high school teacher was that although I wanted the students to like me, it wasn't my job to befriend them. My job was to be a role model who was accessible to them, there to listen (within reason) and to inspire them to follow their dreams.

In the 19 years, I have been in education, social media has complicated the role of teacher. At the beginning of my career, there was no social media, but lines could still easily be blurred. I was told early on, that to protect myself, I should never be alone with students under any circumstance and the door of my classroom should always remain open when I was working with students privately.

We all know the stories of those 1% of teachers who abuse their role and take advantage of young people, getting into relationships or having affairs with students that never turn out well. In the virtual world, those people still exist and prey on the innocent in the same way they did in person.

The teacher/student relationship is a sacred one. We are trusted adults that students turn to for help and advice. We need to know when to listen and offer our experience and when to turn it over to people who are better qualified.

Here are some tips to manage this new world we live in:

  • Know your comfort level and make sure that students are aware of the boundaries. For example, don't give out your cell phone number to all of your students. There are apps now that can offer the same function as a cell phone number, but will allow for some anonymity. I have a few students on my newspaper staff who have my number but it is only to be used on field trips and in emergencies. Otherwise, we communicate via Twitter, email, or Voxer. Make sure students know when to stop reaching out by being clear about how and when you can be reached.

  • When on social media with students, model the behavior you want them to use. Proper digital citizenship is something that must be witnessed. Kids often step over the line not knowing they are. We can easily show them how. Make sure to blog, tweet, and post in any number of places to show them how it's done.

  • When sharing personal stories, make sure they remain purposeful and appropriate. Everything should help illustrate a lesson you are trying to teach. It helps for kids to know us and we shouldn't be able to share, just know when to stop.

  • Make sure students know you are there to listen, but you are a "mandated reporter" - so if they indicate that they want to hurt themselves or you suspect that something may be going on that isn't being talked about, it is your legal responsibility to report it. I've long been the teacher that students seek out and I'm happy to be a refuge, but I also have an obligation to make sure they are taken care of. 

  • Although there may be some situations in small towns where responsible students may babysit or visit your home, I don't recommend having current students in your home. Perhaps once a student graduates this can be adjusted at your discretion.

  • Many schools have rules about Facebook and whether a teacher and student can friend each other. For the most part, I recommend not friending current students, it just presents too much access to their lives and the lives of their friends. There is nothing more awkward than having pictures of students show up in your feed doing irresponsible and illegal things. That puts both the student and the teacher in a very uncomfortable situation.

The bottom line is that we work in close contact with kids, especially as they get older and the lines can easily get blurred. Students have strong feelings and often are mislead by the way they feel, thinking that something that seems real, is. It's our job to make sure the line remains clear and never allow a child to cross it. 

What other advice do you have to share to help teachers build strong relationships with kids that remain healthy? Please share

This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in August of 2015

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