The teacher-student relationship isn’t marriage, isn’t friendship, isn’t work or client or family. I’m not sure what it is.
When you consider how different individual connections can be, it appears teachers and students negotiate their ties moment to moment. Though a student and I have mutual goals, we aren’t married to one another because we aren’t equals and know divorce comes at the end of every term. Though students might sometimes consider me the boss of them, I see myself as part manager part employee. My job is to fulfill their and their parents’ expectations. Even though students and teachers spend a lot of time together, affection—if it develops at all—is invariably conditional, familial only during rare and brief moments.
Does the teacher-student relationship ever rise to the standard of “love”? Not in my experience.
I recently joined the world of facebook, and when one of my real-world friends talked to me about it, she told me my former students would find me. I didn’t know if she meant to tout facebook or to warn me. Some students I’d be happy to talk to again, and others not. Even among the welcome reconnections, however, I confess many arouse pure curiosity over how he or she has grown up.
Not all though.
Since I’m not growing up anymore, I can see why they would not want to get in touch with me. Wherever they have gone, it’s out of my nest—to some changing place unlike the world we shared. When students come back to visit, I sometimes feel as though I live in Brigadoon, the musical mythical village that ages one day for every 100 years in the real world.
Many teachers don’t want anything else—they like being mythical. Some of my colleagues, however, have managed to transform teacher-student relationships into real friendships. They introduce companions as a former students, and that’s all you know about that. You feel no awkwardness between them. They’re pals.
In contrast, my former students struggle to use my first name. I get e-mails or letters from them from time to time. Some have found me on facebook—and I’ve found others—but most treat me with sweet deference. I’m flattered they remember me fondly. I’m grateful when they bother to tell me so. I’m sure they think they pay me the greatest respect by persisting in my surname. But respect isn’t affection. Our reunions seem odd—I wish we could talk the way real people do. I’d like to be friends.
From my side, I think we could, but they may imagine me in a snowglobe smiling in front a blackboard, pointer in hand, my half-glasses pushed down my nose indulgently. Perhaps they’re still worried about disappointing me or are unready to risk their grade.
It would be a risk. It would mean toppling the hierarchy we occupied before. It would require seeing me as a mortal with doubts and flaws and disappointments and dreams and objections and affections and regrets and a vivid real life.
It would entail needing a friend.
Some years ago, a headmaster I know asked me if I’d ever consider becoming a headmaster. In a moment of uncharacteristic tactlessness, I said “No way.” “Being the head of a school,” I said, “means never knowing who cares about you.”
I wonder if teaching means the same thing.