June 19th, 2017

Professor Goldilocks and the Three Boundaries


faculty and students on campus steps

Evidence of the importance of teacher-student relationships is robust. The relationship between a teacher and a student is related to many positive outcomes for the student, including academic success, improved emotional functioning, and increased well-being even after school completion. In fact, an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education reported individuals who felt more connected to a professor while they attended college were more engaged at work and identified higher levels of well-being (Carlson, 2014). The individuals reported emotional support from professors took the form of excitement for learning and a caring attitude about the student’s current well-being and future success.

Although the focus on the outcomes of instructor-student relationships is pervasive, there is often less discussion about the individual components of these relationships. As a professor and a counseling psychologist, my training emphasizes the role that boundaries play in the overall health of a relationship. Boundaries that are too rigid or too loose can negatively affect the relationship dynamic. Rigid boundaries, in which a professor does not try to build connections with students, may negatively impact student perception of the emotional support available to them. Conversely, loose boundaries, in which a professor fails to establish any kind of authority, takes student problems too personally, and shares too much personal information with students, may also damage the instructor-student relationship. Loose boundaries may confuse the student, potentially leading to a conceptualization of the professor as a friend rather than a teacher and mentor.

The just right, or healthy boundaries, are not in place only to protect the student, the professor also accrues benefits. In her book, Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks (1994) notes “teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.” (p.15). At times, I forget how much my own emotional health affects the quality of my teaching and mentorship. When I become over-invested in the personal lives of my students, I have less time to take care of the person who they are turning to for guidance: myself.  It is vital that I maintain both my well-being and my role as a professional.  I believe this is particularly important in a climate where we see more students with mental health issues.

It is important to consider that questions of healthy boundaries are often not answered in terms of definitive correct or incorrect behaviors. As professors, we each must decide what action to take in the gray zone (e.g., whether to have students to our homes or give out our cell phone numbers). A good rule of thumb is to make sure you can maintain the role of professor in every situation. At times professors and students may work together in ambiguous boundary settings, particularly in graduate school. One study suggests the nature of the professional relationship is protected in these settings as long as students maintain a clear perception of the evaluative and mentoring role of the professor (Schwartz, 2011).

A particular gray area for many professors, myself included, is whether to self-disclose in the classroom or during personal interactions with students. To answer this question, I pull from my training in counseling psychology and internally evaluate the purpose of self-disclosure. If the information I am sharing serves the student and our relationship then I proceed (albeit within a professional manner). For example, I may share my own personal experience with not getting into graduate school the first time I applied as a way to allay some student fears. However, it would be wrong of me to share information as a means to gain something from my students or work through an issue I’m having.

Even though each of us may create slightly different boundaries with our students, there are some definitive boundaries that should not be crossed. Research consistently demonstrates that entering into a romantic relationship with a student violates healthy boundaries. As such, many institutions have formal policies against such relationships. In addition, professors should avoid venting or gossiping about other colleagues to students. This form of interpersonal communication does not serve the long-term obligations (i.e., professionalism and mentorship) of the relationship.

In closing, I encourage us to think about our behaviors and the importance of being healthy role models for our students. In Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage Paolo Friere reminds us that “sometimes a simple, almost insignificant gesture on the part of a teacher can have a profound formative effect on the life of a student.” (p. 46). As I think about my undergraduate mentor, it is precisely because of her professionalism, warmth, and mentorship that I still turn to her to help me navigate the waters of working in higher education.


Carlson, S. (2014, May 6). A caring professor may be key in how a graduate thrives. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/A-Caring-Professor-May-Be-Key/146409

Friere, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

hooks, b. (1994) Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

Schwartz, H.L. (2011). From the classroom to the coffee shop: Graduate students and professors effectively navigate interpersonal boundaries. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 23, p. 363-372.

Amanda J. Wyrick is an assistant professor of psychology at Berea College. 

  • EB

    Love this article. Thank you for providing the academic world of the basic rules/expectations we must live by.
    I was interested in seeing Bell hooks and Friere mentioned in your text. I studied about them in my undergraduate program. Fantastic!!!!