by Oona Lundgren-Lahav, Staff Writer, December 2021
There is a reason why student-teacher connections are emphasized in admissions, tours, and freshman orientations. Throughout a student’s time at Nobles, frequent personal access to the faculty is considered a given asset of the private school experience, and seeking guidance and mentorship from teachers, advisors, and coaches is not only common – it’s expected.
Many teachers became involved in education for this very goal, hoping to be a helpful mentor in the growth of their students. “Advising is the most important part of my job,” Associate Director of College Counselling and Class IV Dean Nora Dowley-Leibowitz said. She added, “Making sure that my advisees are feeling comfortable is my number one priority always.”
Students are encouraged to be open and forthcoming with their advisor so that the adult can help them as well as possible, and the connections that last are built on a foundation of trust. “Everything that a mentor does is for the best of the student even if the student might not feel that way at that time,” Dean of Student Engagement Mark Spence said. “Ultimately, there needs to be trust between me and the student. Students can talk and ask me about anything. Sometimes the conversations can be difficult and hard to hear but I trust the student will understand that I have their best interest at heart.”
Often, supportive mentorship doesn’t stop in senior spring; many advisors meet with their former students to catch up long after the students have graduated and moved on to adulthood. These relationships naturally change outside of an educational setting, moving more towards equal-footed adult friendships. This, too, is a valuable byproduct of Nobles’ emphasis on teacher-student connection.
Yet, problems arise when this threshold of friendship is broached before the student is no longer the teacher’s responsibility. There is an undeniable tendency for teachers to step into the fuzzy gray area between mentorship and friendship, where relations can become exceedingly complicated.
One relevant issue is that of communication. Where are the acceptable spaces for students and teachers to connect? “Social media and texting can be a blurry line,” Dowley-Leibowitz said. “For example, texting is a convenient way to communicate with most of my advisees, but I would never want to see my students’ social media, ever. I think if there’s a desire for that, there’s definitely a boundary issue.” Allowing students and teachers access to each other’s social media crosses the bridge from educational to inappropriately personal.
This personal overexposure can lend itself to offline communication as well. There is a hard line to walk between a comfortable and honest connection and an overly personal one. “I think some young educators make the mistake of forming a relationship with a student by telling them a lot of personal information,” Dowley-Leibowitz said. When shared with students, stories about a teacher’s college experiences, romantic relationships, and other aspects of out-of-school life can make boundaries unclear. Moreover, students tend to ignore professional boundaries when it comes to younger adults who they may see as equals. “I feel like there’s a lack of respect for younger teachers. Students can sometimes see younger faculty people as non-authority figures, almost like students themselves,” Ava Neal (Class II) said. Maintaining a separation between the personal and professional can be a tricky and undetermined line, but it ultimately is a teacher’s responsibility to set the standard.
Perhaps the most insidious way teacher-student relationships can sour is through gossip. In a small school, a hyperactive culture of gossip and lack of personal privacy is inevitable. Especially evident within the student body, it can seem that everyone knows everything about everyone. However, when faculty get involved, high school fodder becomes more ethically murky. Multiple students have reported hearing unconfirmed rumors regarding teachers keeping lists of students who are dating or asking invasive questions about students’ personal lives. Regardless of validity, these rumors contribute to students feeling that their personal lives are public information, highlighting an important question about what teachers have the right to know and ask about their students outside of school. There must be a definite line between genuine concern for the well-being of the student as opposed to just curiosity.
Granted, teachers are not the only potential offenders of these boundaries. “The gossip mill runs both ways. I overhear students say really inappropriate things about their teachers,” Neal said. Nobles may be a close-knit community, but it still is a professional setting for faculty, and respect for that must be a two-way street.
Mentorship as a whole boils down to an issue of intent. The relationship should be exclusively student-centered. Boundaries in student-teacher relationships have to be based on the good judgment of both parties, and mutual respect for the roles of mentor versus mentee. Protecting the sanctity and positivity of student-teacher connection depends on it.