Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Je ne sais quoi...

As teachers, we're told early in our careers (and reminded several times each year thereafter) that we are not our students' friends -- we're they're teachers. The implication seems to be that these labels denote mutually exclusive categories of acquaintance, and to muddle them would be somehow beyond the boundaries of professionalism, if not decency. While there is certainly merit to be found within the notion of drawing a distinction between friendship and teaching, I can't help but to also find a few flaws in the logic (or at least in the words in which we express the idea) as well. 

Now, I don't really feel that "friend" is exactly the right word to describe how I feel about the students with whom I have taught and remain close, and it is definitely not the right word to describe how I feel about my current students, I also have to admit that it isn't all that far off either. By and large, encouraging meaningful relationships in the classroom has worked exceptionally well for me as a teacher. I feel connected to my students, and they feel connected to me, which I believe is the requisite solid ground on which a stable, sturdy, enduring program of study is built. Admitting that I do consider some students to be something like friends (friendish? friendesque?), I have to ask if that's such a sin after all.

As a writing teacher who believes in encouraging authenticity in writing tasks, I've read some deeply personal student writing on everything from divorce to to death to deployments to rehab to eating disorders to broken hearts to the ends of friendships and the list could go on and on. Likewise, in an attempt to model my expectations for my students and encourage and develop a sense of classroom community, I have shared my own deeply personal (age appropriate) writing with my students too. Even on days when we're not sharing anything one might consider "personal" in the traditional sense of the word, I feel like I'm always asking students to open themselves up to me and to our class. My courses are structured around questions like "How do human beings deal with atrocities?" and "How do race/gender/ ethnicity/class/sexuality/citizenship status impact one's experiences and beliefs?". If those kinds of questions aren't asking for pretty personal stuff, I don't really know what is. And beyond that, don't we tell students, beg them even sometimes, to come to us for help, to tell us when something isn't right at home, to report abuse or bullying? If we believe that we are worthy of that kind of trust, doesn't that make us something like friends? For that reason, I can't bring myself to nod knowingly when a colleague makes the old claim that "we're not their friends."

I guess I have to say that I'm ok with saying that we're not their "friends," but we're not "not their friends." It's really one of those cases where we lack a word to fully capture and describe a feeling; the feeling exists, but the word doesn't. I read a book once in which the narrator noted that Italians have a word - "campanilismo" - for which there is no English equivalent. "Campanilismo" literally translates as "for the love of one's bell tower," and it connotates a kind of patriotism for one's home village. As I read it, I thought to myself that we do have that feeling here too, even if we don't have a name for it. Maybe Italian teachers have a word for how they feel about their students, and maybe they'll let us in on it so we can put to rest that dreadful phrase "we're not their friends" and define our relationship in terms of what we are, instead of in terms of what we're not.

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