Professors play an integral role in cultivating the hearts and minds of their students through the creation of a vibrant intellectual community. Fostering intellectual curiosity and academic integrity enables students to grow professionally and personally. A natural byproduct of such a community can, and should be, friendship. Meaningful friendships with peers and professors in the classroom shape hearts and minds, expand perspectives, and challenge positions because they are built on mutual trust and respect. Friendship is a partnership that assumes equal effort and contribution. As graduate students, we find that developing friendships with professors results in increased learning and performance. In such an environment, one is not afraid to reveal weaknesses or academic shortcomings, and it erases (or minimizes) any insecurity that could result from unequal content authority. We feel secure in asking questions, expressing frustrations, and asserting intellect. Therefore, friendship plays an essential role in the struggle for knowledge. A strong relationship between teacher and student “is a central component in successful teaching and learning” (Aultman, Williams-Johnson, and Schutz, 2009).
Sertillanges (1965) addresses friendship by stating that “Friendship is an obstetric art; it draws out our richest and deepest resources; it unfolds the wings of our dreams and hidden indeterminate thoughts; it serves as a check on our judgments, tries out our new ideas, keeps up our ardor, and inflames our enthusiasm” (p. 56). By this definition, friendships between professors and students are not antithetical; rather, they are quintessential to higher education. They help students discover strengths while overcoming deficiencies. Genuine friendships allow professors to work with students through their most difficult moments and rejoice with them in their successes. Many if not all of us would say that a teacher or professor has been among the most influential people in our lives. Friendship facilitates a deeper connection to such important figures.
Students’ attitudes regarding their relationships with their professors play a larger role in student success than many professors may realize (Micari and Pazos, 2012). Avoiding close relationships by way of professional distance limits the opportunity for students to have a robust and valuable collegiate experience (Bartnett, 2008), particularly at the graduate level. Here are some teaching strategies that will foster the development professor–student friendships:
- Share your power, but do not relinquish or eliminate your authority (Schwatz, 2011). Students and professors are not peers and do not have equal authority, but they can share power. A friendship with a student does not require you to abandon your position and join ranks with the students. Quite to the contrary, your authority allows you to establish boundaries, assert leadership, and empower students. You can share power by inviting vibrant discourse, inspiring, and motivating. You can set an example that would be hard for students not to follow. You can offer authentic leadership positions within the classroom. You can shape consensus that represents a position that students might not adopt without your leadership. Conversely, you can hold back and allow the students to leap forward and shape their own learning. A great example would be to have your current class create the syllabus for the next class.
- Be aware of positionality. Consistently positioning yourself at the front of the classroom or behind the lectern creates a physical boundary and may stymie discussion by establishing a false dichotomy between the professor as purveyor of knowledge and student as receiver of knowledge. Reserve these positions for times in which they are absolutely essential (e.g., when illustrating a point using the whiteboard). Unnecessary boundaries weaken the professor–student relationship (Barnett, 2008). Instead, move about the classroom or arrange seating so that no one is sitting at the head of the classroom.
- Share personal stories. Personal stories should be shared with deliberate intent. Personal stories should validate the student’s experience (Schwatz, 2011) or serve to reinforce, illustrate, or emphasize content-related material. The purpose of these stories should not be solely to entertain or seek emotional support from students. For instance, you can share an experience about writing your first literature review or an experience of having a manuscript rejected for publication.
- Spend quality academic time outside of the classroom with students. Pascarella and Terenizini (1991) indicate that out-of-class contact with faculty has a “statistically significant direct effect on various dimensions of career interest and career choice above and beyond the influence of selection factors” (p. 479). Conferences, community events, and academic meetings held outside the office are great ways to increase quality time that still pertains to academics.
- Create a professional social media page and allow students to “friend” you. Social media may give you anecdotal evidence about factors in students’ lives that may their ability to learn (e.g., death, divorce, illness). Do not use the page as a tool to communicate about the class, but as a tool for students to see you in another medium. However, refrain from oversharing details about family, social activities, and other personal information.
Aultman, Lori Price, Meca R. Williams-Johnson, and Paul A. Schutz. “Boundary Dilemmas in Teacher–student Relationships: Struggling with “the Line”.” Teaching and Teacher Education 25, no. 5 (2009): 636-46. doi:10.1016/j.tate.2008.10.002.
Barnett, Jeffrey E. “Mentoring, Boundaries, and Multiple Relationships: Opportunities and Challenges.” Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning 16, no. 1 (2008): 3-16. doi:10.1080/13611260701800900.
Micari, Marina, and Pilar Pazos. “Connecting to the Professor: Impact of the Student–Faculty Relationship in a Highly Challenging Course.” College Teaching 60, no. 2 (2012): 41-47. doi:10.1080/87567555.2011.627576.
Pascarella, Ernest T., and Patrick T. Terenzini. How College Affects Students: Findings and Insights from Twenty Years of Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1991.
Schwartz, Harriet L. “From the Classroom to the Coffee Shop: Graduate Students and Professors Effectively Navigate Interpersonal Boundaries.” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 23, no. 3 (2011): 363-72.
Sertillanges, A.-D. The Intellectual Life, Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. Cork, IR: Mercier Press, 1965.
Jennifer Farmer is a doctoral student at Texas Woman’s University. She currently works as an educational administrator in a K–12 setting. Sarah Holman is a doctoral student at Texas Woman’s University. She currently works as a dyslexia diagnostician in Arlington, TX.
Reprinted from “Friendship as a Teaching Strategy for Graduate Students,” Academic Leader, 32,08 (2016): 3,7. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.