Balance and Boundaries

I was recently asked how I help teachers understand the proper balance between appropriate boundaries and building important relationships in the classrooms.  Having worked in the classroom as a new, young teacher, and now as an administrator with some young faculty, I had these perspectives to share.

I have long been a proponent that what makes a great school, classroom, or learning experience is strong relationships.  A teacher’s ability to initiate, nurture, and maintain positive relationships  with his or her students is as integral to the educational process as having strong content knowledge and a collection of effective instructional strategies.

Oftentimes, especially for new or young teachers, learning about the proper balance between appropriate boundaries and building these integral relationships can be an ambiguously sticky and somewhat confusing process.  Further, determining such a balance will vary from person to person, school to school, and age group to age group.

In particular, the rapport teachers build with the ever-changing middle school-aged student requires a nimbleness that comes with tremendous emotional intelligence, targeted mentorship, or good old fashioned experience (which sometimes means making mistakes in the process and learning from them).

Making this dynamic more ambiguous is the ever-changing needs and desires of adolescent students.  Invariably, they are starting to break away from parents and seeking adult interactions that have them feeling more adult. The adults they have the most exposure to and the opportunity to bond with are their teachers.

And herein lies the conflict for the teacher.  We want to build strong bonds with our students, because that is the primary catalyst to good learning experiences, but the type of relationship that our students want with us may be on the wrong side of the appropriate boundary lines.

Here are some things to think about and basic rules of thumb:

•         You don’t need to get personal to have a good relationship. Let the tool of your rapport be through the content and activities of the class.

•         You don’t need to be the class clown to have a good relationship with the students. Avoid sarcasm as it is often misunderstood by students and can easily be hurtful. Remember, they are kids, and the message you send may not be the message they receive.

•         Build bonds through extra-curricular connections. Go to their games and their performances, but be sure to set and maintain boundaries outside the classroom.

•         Don’t try to get students to like you by romanticizing your own life in an effort to become the exciting hero of their real-life novel.  Be authentic, not a fictional character in a movie.

•         Share your passion for common interests and let that serve as a foundation for your connections with your students. Talk about a popular book you may be reading, such as Hunger Games, or a movie you saw.

•         Building a strong, positive, and appropriate relationship with students does not require a friendship, but rather a sharing of passions, a group excitement for process, a unified appreciation and pride in the product, and the magic of sharing all three with the group.

Parents want their children to have a good school experience, to genuinely like their teachers. After all, a positive classroom environment promotes student achievement. However, a teacher who shares too much about his or her adult life breaches the trust that parents have when they send their child to school. It’s not good for the student and it’s not good for the teacher.

As I have always said, strong relationships are at the core of a great school,   but we must be cognizant of building those relationships on a positive, appropriate and respectful foundation.   Ultimately, as a community that strives for 360 degree support for the student experience, consideration of our role at school as en loco parentis renders the relationship between the teacher and student to be clearly one of adult and adolescent.  Such a rapport will foster the necessary trust and respect between teacher and student, and school and family.

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