Can students and teachers be friends?

Fotobewerking: DUB

Getting a drink with the entire workgroup and the teacher after finishing a series of lectures, sure, there’s nothing weird about that. But what do you do as teacher if a student asks you to grab a beer together? And how to you respond as student when your fun, spontaneous teacher shows interest in your private Instagram pics? Do you like it, or is it just plain weird?

We asked the members of our DUB panel whether there’s anything wrong with friendly contact between teachers and students. And what do they feel? Is the relationship between students and teachers becoming more intimate or is the opposite true? Below, we’ll share their mail responses (edited for clarity).

‘The relationship is inequal by definition’

Miranda Jansen, director of operations of the department of Social Sciences at the Faculty of Social Sciences:
“I think a friendship between students and teachers simply isn’t okay. Sure, they can treat each other in a friendly, respectful way. A teacher can grab a drink with a group of students and have some nice chats, but a teacher will always have a position of authority regarding the students, and should behave accordingly. The relationship is therefore inequal by definition. The teacher assesses the student, and the student is dependant on the teacher’s assessment. This is a barrier to any sort of equality-based friendship.

“I can imagine that content-wise, a bond might start to bloom, for instance when teacher and student have an intensive collaboration on a scientific issue. But even then, there should be some distance, just like for instance between a supervisor and his PhD candidate.

“Students and teachers are ‘friends’ on Facebook more and more often, or are in WhatsApp groups together. Perhaps that’s a cause of these shifting boundaries. It’s easier to get a peek into the other’s daily life, and can chat with each other online. Here, too, I feel teachers should always remember they’re not students’ friends.”

‘I eat pizza with students in a Parisian park’

Annemieke Hoogenboom, art historian:
“I don’t really see the problem here, but that might be because I’m a teacher in a relatively small programme, and know nearly all of the students. Additionally, we go on field trips quite often, even outside the regular courses. Last year, around this time, I was sitting on the grass, eating pizza with students in a park in Paris near the Seine, while we enjoyed a gorgeous sunset. The students are approximately the same age as my children, with whom I do similar things.”

‘Romantic relationships between students and students never used to be a problem’

Peter Selten, social scientist:
“Forty years ago, when I was a student, as well as later when I was a young teacher, it was much more common that students and teachers went to bars together, and hung out with each other in a friendly manner. This led to relationships every now and then, without causing any sort of fuss, not even from superiors. That’s something that’s unthinkable in this #MeToo era.

“The distance between students and teachers has grown in the past two decades. In the rare instance you’d take your students to a bar, it would only be for an occasion such as the end of a course, keeping the student-teacher relation intact. The culture at the university has indeed become more formal and hierarchical compared to the libertarian manners back in the day. But it’s also partially due to the fact that our students are, on average, a lot younger now. You don’t see many students who are older than 23. On top of that, there are barely any student assistants left, with whom you’d usually have a more intensive, more collegial type of relationship. They’ve been replaced with just-graduated junior teachers.

“As for social media: I don’t feel the slightest need to let my students see and read my private conversations, and I suspect students don’t want me to see the photos of them partying on Facebook and Instagram, either. And rightly so!”

At some universities, students and teachers celebrate the weekend with Friday drinks’

Yorick Koridon, student of Psychology
“I don’t mind it if students want to have a beer with teachers in an informal setting. In fact, at some (international) universities, it’s a habit to celebrate the weekend with Friday drinks together. In this way, teachers – even in their role as supervisor – could obtain information that allows them to cater to the needs of the students better. The most important word here is ‘transparency’. There should be room for developing friendly contact, but with clear communication about where the boundaries are, and when teachers would lose their objectivity in education. But sometimes, the threshold is already too high to even be able to have informal discussions, which would mean any type of friendship is already out of the picture.”

‘It’s important not to see students as friends’

Floris van den Berg, environmental philosopher:
“I’m reluctant to meet up with students outside of the study programme. Especially in a one on one situation. I think it’s a good thing to keep some professional distance in the relationship between a teacher and a student. When I was still on Facebook and LinkedIn, I had a rule that I only accepted friend requests from ex-students, and never sent any friendship requests to students myself. Communication with students is only done through the university’s email and Blackboard, never through WhatsApp or mobile phone.

“Sometimes, I’ll take a group of Master’s students out for a vegan dinner to close off the course, but that’s related to the study programme. It’s important to have a professional attitude towards the students, and not to see the students as friends, and not to interfere with their social lives.”

‘As long as there’s no power relation, there’s nothing wrong’

Frank van Rijnsoever, innovation scientist:
“The question is how you’d define friendship. A relationship that consists of good interaction is nice, but true friendship is, I think, undesirable, because as a teacher you lose your objectivity in assessment. Still, it can happen, for instance when someone becomes a teacher after graduating, and suddenly has to teach their only slightly younger friends. In that case, it’s sensible to try to let a colleague teach and assess those students, for as much as that’s possible.

“Aside from that, the boundaries are quite clear. As long as there’s no power relation between student and teacher, there’s nothing wrong. The power relation develops when you have to assess someone. It also depends on which phase of their studies someone’s in. You can easily grab a beer with a student who’s nearly graduating if they’re, for instance, doing a research internship in your research group. In that case, the relationship is often more collegial than hierarchical.

“The only social media I’m on along with students is LinkedIn. That’s a professional medium that can help students with their careers. I only use app groups if they’re functional, for instance during study trips abroad.”

‘At a university, the boundaries can be blurrier than at high school’

Melissa Alberts, student of psychology:
“I feel like it should be okay. Students and teachers are just human too, after all. Aside from their professional lives, they have their own lives. Why should we enforce limitations on that as a society? I feel like it’s patronising to say students and teachers can’t make their own choices about who they meet up with in their spare time.

“I think the boundaries at university are blurrier – and are allowed to be so – than at high school, for instance. The age gaps between students and teachers are often much bigger in high school. To me, the difference is really that students and teachers are both adults, and so they should be allowed to make their own decisions.

“At the same time, I do see the dangers in socialising outside the classroom. If something happens in their personal lives, personal feelings can play a negative role. However, I’m once again thinking that it’s up to both student and teacher to remain professional, and to leave personal feelings out of the professional relationship.”