Step 14: Manage Your Physical Presence

It’s interesting that, although I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to present myself to students online, presenting myself to students in person has never been much cause for concern. Even when I was a TA as an undergrad, in a course I had not taught for students who were older than me, I’ve never run into issues with authority. I had once speculated that I had become so used to teaching that even in my interactions with friends I take on a slight mentor role, but continuing with Socratic-method-like questions on things that actually interest me. The flip side, however, is also that I like to think of students as friends unless I need to otherwise.

This issue of how teachers relate to students is actually something I’ve thought a lot about, because I only recently realized that not everyone feels that they should be/are friends with who they teach. Recently I’ve talked to several friends who did have issues with authority, stemming almost directly from treating their students as friends. It has been suggested that I somehow wield authority better, that I’m more willing to put my foot down and re-establish the formal relationship – but I don’t think that’s it. If anything, I have been accused of being rude by my students, because of my heavy use of sarcasm with my friends. This at least I buy – that my students don’t know me well enough yet to distinguish between me being sincere and me being sarcastic, and therefore may take my comments the wrong way. The solution, without losing my sarcasm, is to at least warn students beforehand about this tendency

Sarcastic as I may be, this doesn’t explain why I feel students should be treated as friends. A quote that has been influential – in the sense of “this describes how I feel”, not “I should be doing this” – comes from Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism without Beliefs: “The task [of true friends] is not to make themselves indispensable, but redundant.” In context, it was about having friends whom “we can trust to refine our understanding of what it means to live”. But, even in the original passage, Batchelor describes these friends as teachers in how to live, who “invites us to interact, to challenge and be challenged.” And if that’s not what a teacher should do, I don’t know what is.

This is not to say that I don’t understand the cultural differences in boundaries between friendships and student/teacher relationships, only that I see little conflict between the two. Curiously, Math with Bad Drawings paints Oliver Sacks in the same light, that being professional and being platonically intimate are not mutually exclusive. This is explicitly against what we are told to do as doctors and teachers, but I don’t think that rule is as strict as we are led to believe.

I’m starting to sound arrogant here, so I’ll stop. But I would love to here how others navigate the student/teacher boundary, and how it’s different/the same as the one between friends.

PS. If there’s anything I worry about in terms of physical presence, it’s that I’m not sure what clothes to wear. It’s still somewhat bizarre to me that I am now officially and solely in charge of twenty students, when I don’t even know whether I should wear flip-flops – if that’s too informal – or brown dress shows – but they’re so much work. Of all the things to worry about…

Step 14: Manage Your Physical Presence

One thought on “Step 14: Manage Your Physical Presence

  1. Carmel says:

    I think of myself as kind of like a coach. I want to help my students see what needs to be done and work with them to come up for a plan for how to get there. The description of friends you’ve given would apply, but I think there is an element of reciprocity (over the long term) in my personal definition of friendship that I wouldn’t expect of students. There are also times where a student might behave in a way that I would find problematic in a friendship, but I wouldn’t address it in the same way as I would with a friend. Our role does give us power, or at least perceived power, so I try to be aware of that.

    Flip-flops if that’s what’s more comfortable! I think Saul wears Keens to teach most of the time.


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