Teaching Opinion

Response: Part Two -- Can Teachers Be Friends With Students?

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 27, 2011 7 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(NOTE: This is the second of a three-part series)

Brad Patterson asked:

Can we be friends with our students? Where do we create barriers? How about social-media wise? I’m interested to hear about your experience, lessons learned, regrets, what you would offer as advice for new teachers.

Rick Wormeli provided his response in the first post of a three-part series. Here in Part Two, I’ll first share my own thoughts on how this issue relates to the differences between a “public” and a “private” relationship; followed by Jose Vilson’s response to Brad’s question, and then conclude with a number of readers’ comments..

Next Wednesday I’ll conclude this series with two guest responses -- from Bud Hunt and Ernie Rambo -- primarily answering the question through the lens of social media. I’ll also include more reader comments.

Public And Private Relationships

As many readers know, I was a community organizer for nineteen years prior to becoming a teacher ten years ago. One of the many organizing lessons I learned during that time and that I’ve tried to apply to teaching is the difference between public and private relationships.

It is not an either/or perspective, and clearly must be more nuanced in an environment like a classroom. Nevertheless, keeping it in mind has helped me maintain more of a personal/professional “equilibrium” and helped my students learn important life lessons.

Organizers believe that private relationships are usually our family and friends, where our imperfections tend to be accepted. We generally have these relationships on an “as is” basis. We expect not to be judged and expect loyalty -- love in a broad sense is the “currency.”

Public relationships encompass everyone else. Reciprocity is the “currency.” We expect respect and gain it by being accountable for our actions. Loyalty is generated through reciprocity --a quid pro quo.

As Ed Chambers, longtime Director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the group I worked for during most of my organizing career, writes, private relationships are “unconventional promises of mutual commitment” while public relationships are the “world of exchange, compromise and deals -- the world of contracts, transactions and the law.”

Organizers believe it is not uncommon for people with power in our society to try to manipulate these two realms for their own purposes. Advertising techniques -- including slogans like “reach out and touch someone” -- and the typical gesture of a politician kissing a baby are just two obvious examples. In our organizing, we all too often saw officials trying to blur these distinctions to their advantage. For example, one mayor tried to repeatedly deflect community anger at local police cooperation with immigration raids one day prior to city’s annual weekend celebration of its Hispanic heritage. What tactic did he use to justify his support of the police action? He claimed people should not be angry at him because his “wife was half-Latina.”

I view the teacher/student relationship as a public one -- a caring one, a relationship that requires great patience and understanding -- but, nevertheless, a public one.

One year, I had a student with an enormous amount of challenges. I put a great deal of time and energy into supporting him, including purchasing books of his own choosing to read, working with him to develop alternative assignments that would be more fun and accessible, and providing occasional snacks between classes. He made great progress during the first six weeks of the school year, and was a delight to have in class. However, things began to go downhill dramatically at that time. I asked him to go outside with me so we could have a private talk after he said something like “You don’t care about me and you just want to kick me out of class!”

This is what I said to him in a calm voice:

“I felt hurt by what you said. I feel like I’ve bent over backward to support you and help you succeed (I then gave examples). I don’t need thanks, but I expect respect. And I haven’t been feeling very respected by you over the past few weeks. I will be a helpful and supportive teacher to you, as I am with all the students in my class. But I don’t feel like continuing to go the extra mile for someone who doesn’t show me respect. I want to emphasize that I will be a helpful and supportive teacher to you, but I’m just not going to continue to go the extra mile.”

He began to react negatively, but I quickly ended the conversation and we returned to class. Afterwards, however, “John” returned to being respectful and hardworking, and I returned to “going the extra mile.” He ended up having a very successful year.

Response From Jose Vilson

Jose Vilson is a math teacher and coach, writer, and co-author of Teaching 2030: What We Must Do For Our Students and Our Public Schools .... Now and In The Future. Jose is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network.

It’s an interesting question in a time when the word “friend” has already been diluted in the context of social networks. I prefer to think about it in the non-tech context because it should give a window for future “friend” references. Teachers can and should, in general, be friendly with students, but not be friends with students. The important distinction lies in the degree and depth to which you interact with the students on a personal level. That “friend” level should only come after having established a “teacher” authority with them. It’s important, for instance, to greet them in the morning and ask them how things are going with them. It’s important that students know that you care about them and that they can turn to you. That’s only powerful when you’ve already established that you’re their teacher, and that you won’t entertain certain behaviors that their friends would during school time.

Thus, I only add students on Facebook when they’ve graduated. I can let them know that I’m a big hip-hop fan, but I won’t entertain discussions of Watch The Throne unless it’s actually (and directly) related to the math at hand. I can give my perspective on what they’re going through and occasionally listen to a student vent, but that’s usually an aside to the math curriculum itself. Unless I’m integrating their interests into our lesson plans, and we’re diverging in that vein, then I usually keep the friendship part away from the business part.

Reader Responses

Several readers also shared their responses. They include:

Renee Moore:

I‘ve spent a lot of time counseling new teachers, especially males, about the dangers of crossing professional line with students. New, young teachers at the high school seemed particularly vulnerable to wanting to be buddies and pals with students who weren’t that far from them in age. I saw many teachers careers torn up by poor judgment and having their good intentions misread. For myself, I am my students’ friend--but I am not their peer.

Paul Thomas:

The long-standing rule “Don’t be friends with your students” has always bothered me--primarily because it implies a pejorative meaning of “friend.”

Friendship, in its proper meaning, is a healthy, respectful connection between two people and is the IDEAL connection between any two people, especially when those people are in some sort of productive situation, such as teaching and learning.

I think this discussion is needed with young teachers in order to address the nuances of the term “friendship,” notably, as Renee Moore stated, the differences among friends who are peers and those who are not.

When my students come to view me as their friend it is a genuine honor that I cherish, one of the most important elements of being a teacher along with students coming to respect me.


I do not want to be any student’s friend. I hope to be their trusted source of help with learning English as a Foreign Language, and council for issues, public and private. I hope to be of value to them in the present and in the future. But I am not interested in a friendship relationship.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. .

Thanks again to Brad for posing this week’s question and to Jose, Renee, Paul and yokkaichi1 for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

Watch for Part Three in this series next Wednesday!

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.