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Is the teacher/student relationship a friendship? A kind of parenting? Mentoring? Or something else
I raised this topic just now in Paula's discussion on Hierarchy and it seemed to me this was really a question of its own. There I had written, in response to a proposed improvement of our educational system :

is the nature of a teacher-student interaction like a relationship (in the sense of being entered into for mutual support/enjoyment and bound by a mainly emotional commitment) or is it something else? This isn't a leading question. It's an important clarification, I think. The answer may vary dramatically by the student's age and subject matter. For instance, I would say that a parenting relationship is not, in this sense, like a friendship or love relationship.

People use many metaphors to describe their teachers. Teachers use many familiar categories (the most common being perhaps "children") to describe their students. A certain number of people inevitably confuse the categories, falling in love with their teachers (or students) or marrying their professor's daughters in order to become their sons, as was done by more than one starry-eyed young 19th c. protege.

With so much potential for confusion, which of these metaphors are correct? What is the right way to describe the teacher/student relationship? As I ask in the title: is it a friendship? a kind of parenting? mentorship? or something else entirely? What are its characteristics and what is its aim?
I'm copying below my reply to Solveig's response in the Hierarchy thread:

Is the nature of a teacher-student interaction like a relationship (in the sense of being entered into for mutual support/enjoyment and bound by a mainly emotional commitment) or is it something else?  I find this a very interesting question, and is really why I started the Hierarchy thread. As I've mentioned before, I'm tutoring a 16-year-old boy from Peru, who has been floundering in school here for 3 years. Our relationship as tutor/student has caused me to re-think my ideas about teaching. I taught high school and college English many, many years ago, and find this tutoring so much more satisfying. So I've been analyzing why that is so.

When teaching in public schools, I had to maintain some authority and distance from the students, and to do so required a good deal of energy spent bullying them into behaving as I thought they should--doing their homework and sitting quietly as their desks. They in turn had to display their independence by hassling me or show they were good girls and boys by doing as I asked. This was not satisfying behavior on either side.

In contrast, as a free tutor, I have little investment in what my student learns--that's his choice. I want to be as helpful as I can, but the course of our progress will depend on his curiosity and drive and I'm quite willing for that to be whatever he chooses. I don't mean that I don't care about him but rather that responsibility for learning has shifted from me to him. And the consequence is that we have indeed become friends. He's grateful for my time, attention and knowledge, and I find him a delightful young man. Not to mention that it's great fun watching him flower. Together we're learning US History, and I'm drilling him in English vocabulary. But I'm quite flexible. Each day he comes in and tells me what he wants my help with that day, and that's what we do. Sometimes he just wants to share with me his own world--his drawing, his new computer, whatever--so we do that. 

And this manner of teaching/learning is working remarkably well, for both of us. I enjoy the process a great deal and he seems to as well. His grades have jumped from Ds and Fs to As and Bs (well, a C in Algebra, which I can't help him with.) And we've both made a new friend. 

So all of this has caused me to look back at my teaching days in public schools as a mistake. That manner of teaching is off-base. Teachers and students don't relate to each other as human beings, or do so only obliquely when they can wriggle past the institutional barriers to real contact. I think we must care about each other as people before anything very interesting is likely to happen. It's not, I should add, that the teacher/tutor lacks authority; it's that the authority is freely given by the student, not imposed by an institution.

In response to Paula James
I think you've been allowed by virtue of vastly changed circumstances to create a new friend.
First, no one is looking over your shoulder to make sure you are teaching to the test.
Second, you're not in a situation where, of the 26 kids in your classroom, 18 would rather be somewhere else.
Third, as a public school teacher, you never had the opportunity to tailor your instruction to a single person.
I feel sure the person doing this work of kindness was always inside you, wanting to break out but hampered by the institution. Your young charge is lucky indeed to have you, and will no doubt love you until his last breath.
But, alas, what you are describing is a far cry from public school teaching, at any level. There are exceptions, though, and maybe we should track down a teacher in one of those vaunted schools where the kids want to learn and ask her how she would describe her role.

In response to Paula James
To amplify on what Thomas has said, in a tutor-student relationship you choose the student, and he chooses you. That's completely different from public schools, which are required to provide an education to all comers, regardless of ability, interest or circumstances. Also, the dynamics of one on one instruction are completely different from instructing a class of 30, often of widely disparate abilities and needs, as I'm sure you're in a much better position to appreciate than most. 

People who seek out tutors are people who have already recognized that there are deficiencies in their academic performance and who are motivated to correct those deficiencies -in other words, they self select themselves as the people who are most likely to benefit from tutoring. Think of it this way: who is going to produce better plays, an extracurricular drama club in which participation is voluntary or a drama class in which all students are required to participate? Almost certainly the former, because it's entirely composed of people who are genuinely passionate about drama and are committed enough to contribute their personal time to the project.

Education works the same way. If you REQUIRE everyone to attend school then the overall calibre of the student population is going to be about mediocre because most students are somewhere about average and the exceptionally poor and exceptionally good ones more or less cancel each other out  (statisticians call this "converegence towards the mean"). If on the other hand you can cherry pick the better students they will naturally outperform the public school mean, and that's basically what you are doing when you offer suitably motivated students the opportunity to receive additional instruction outside of the classroom. It's not that one method of instruction delivery is superior to the other; it's that one is directed at a specific subset of students most likely to benefit from it, while the other is necessarily a highly generic approach to education that is mostly incapable of accounting for the needs of specific learners.
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Latest Post: August 23, 2011 at 2:33 PM
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