Engaging Students: Friendly but Not Their Friend

Today’s college instructors are expected not only to be engaging in their classes, but to engage students outside the classroom. Whether it’s supervising service-learning, taking students to professional conferences, leading study sessions in coffee houses, or inviting students into our homes, faculty are now expected to be with students in ways that change the kinds of relationships teachers and students have in the classroom. Teachers now interact with their students in a variety of contexts, many of them informal and some of them purely social. These new roles blur the line between being friendly toward students and being a friend of students. This matters whether you’ve been teaching for a while and no longer look like a student or whether your academic career is just starting. All faculty need to know how to build supportive and positive, but businesslike, relationships with students.

What are some strategies for developing the right balance between being friendly with students while still being their professor? They start with building respectful relationships. How the instructor asks and answers questions adds to the development of friendly yet respectful relationships. In her book Teaching Your First College Class, Carolyn Lieberg (2008) writes, “All of us feel cared about when people look at us when we speak and truly listen to our ideas or questions. Students also feel cared about if you show that you are accessible to them outside of class. … The basic message is that students want to be treated with respect.” (p. 11) Inside or outside of the classroom, our interpersonal communication should be built on respectful exchanges.

Sometimes actions that seem unimportant help to establish these respectful relationships. Professional attire is a good example. Even though professors don’t teach in academic regalia anymore, it is still appropriate to dress more like a professional and less like a student. Faculty who look like students can expect students to respond to them as if they are students. Professional language is also a must. It is another way that professors differentiate themselves from students, and in most professional contexts four-letter words are not appropriate.

When we leave the classroom, the norms change in small but significant ways. It is important to keep the right professional distance, whether meeting with students in your office or having them to your home. The age-old advice of keeping your office door open at all times when you are meeting with students is as relevant today as it always has been. If students are joining you in your home for a study session or end-of-semester gathering, make sure that you have another “adult” in the home (your spouse, a trusted friend, or another professor). It is not a good idea to have a student arrive early to help organize the event or to have one stay late to help clean up. The question of whether or not to serve alcohol depends on several factors, including the campus culture and the legal drinking age of the students. It is never a good idea to serve alcohol to undergraduates, even if they are of age, if they must drive home.

What about the distance between you and students electronically, whether it’s email or social media? Should the professor “friend” his or her students as a means of communication? Are Facebook and LinkedIn viable ways to reach students and further help them learn? How informal should emails and Twitter messages be? Rather than answer these questions, we pose them for your discussion. Creating a social media site specifically for class interaction is quite different from “friending” your students on a personal site. It is good to always remember that all electronic communications can go public at any time. Nothing is confidential.

How friendly should a professor be? Consider a parallel to the old Golden Rule. When interacting with students, ask yourself, “As a student, how would I feel if my professor made this request of me or responded to my question this way?” Those of us with children can ask the question another way: “How would I feel if my son or daughter’s college instructor did this?” The question can be asked more bluntly: “Could this interaction be defended before parents and administration?” And perhaps the toughest version of all: “If this interaction were quoted on the front page of the local paper, how would it appear?” With those questions guiding your decision making, and some old-fashioned common sense, you can have productive, engaging, and friendly relationships with your students.

Reprinted from Friendly but Not Their Friend The Teaching Professor, 26.5 (2012): 4-5.