Can you fail your friends?

Post by: Ruth Moeller
Image: from Elgin County Archives, sourced via flikr

Ruth Moeller is a recent psychology student, lecturer in tertiary education and advisor on learning and teaching at RMIT University. She thinks that learning should be without boundaries but relationships should.

Can you fail your friends?
This was a discussion I was having with a colleague – can you fail your friends. I don’t mean failing to tell a friend that yellow is not a colour for a grown man to wear, or yes, he is cheating and doesn’t deserve you, or to be too busy to come around to celebrate or commiserate about whatever. No, what we were talking about is can, or should, you be friends with your students?

As anyone who knows me can attest, I am the friend of a boundary, sometimes a loose and relaxed one, other times topped with barbed wire and broken glass for extra measure. It has always intrigued and challenged me as too how close/involved you get with your students.

Early in my career, I was working young adults on traineeship programs and being new, relatively inexperienced and unsure, I kept the boundary between us firm; I was professional, did what was required but found the daily interaction, beyond the formal teaching, a struggle.

Then Sue Edwards, colleague, excellent educator and good friend gave me the advice – “Give something of your self – let them see you are a person”. This was powerful advice, by dropping my guard, sharing small parts of my life; we developed a relationship that, while still professional, had a sense of warmth about it. I was even invited to Richo’s 21st, along with the rest of the group – didn’t go mind you (boundary alert) but was delighted to be included.
Since then I have been teaching groups in diverse situations and have kept to the philosophy of ‘giving of self’ because I believe much of teaching is about the relationship but in a way that respects the boundary between us. For me, this means, not being their friends on Facebook or following them on Twitter – I have set up separate accounts for that. Being delighted to be invited for a drink after class but having a reason to leave after one or two – asking after their welfare but not expecting to share mine.

Although it sounds like it, this isn’t just all about me. I think students, at whatever level should have the opportunity to discuss, complain analyse and disengaged from being students, and limiting my presence allows them to do that – because I am not their friend either.

Discussing this with colleagues, here at Shutupandwrite, the issue of context was raised, does the friendship view change is you are teaching an intensive, or on a study tour where the dynamic is not a 9 to 5 one? One of the Shutupandwriters cited the example of teaching intensive programs offshore, where there is a strong cultural expectation that the lecturer will socialise with students, in some instances going to their homes.

Having lead offshore study tours, my view remains the same, am happy to be invited to dinner and shopping, but I don’t expect it. I may not have to fail any one on the study tour, but I may have to deal with unforeseen problems that may require the use of my authority as ‘teacher’ which is difficult to exercise if I have move into the role of ‘buddy’.

I am interested in your thoughts, can your students be your friends? Should there be a boundary between us? If so, how do you manage that boundary?


2 thoughts on “Can you fail your friends?

  1. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    This becomes an interesting question on social media, where boundaries tend to bleed together. I talked to Media and Communications lecturers a few years ago about this topic. Some tried to keep a strict line between work and personal life, while others blended them on-line but kept them separate off-line. One was on FaceBook only so that she could keep in touch with her alumni group

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