Before I began teaching CEGEP, I taught intensive summer English Immersion programs at a university in small-town Quebec. I’d already been teaching in various capacities for a while at that point, but one experience with these five-week programs made me think suddenly of Mr. G.
My class that summer was a joy, and I established a good rapport with all of the students. This program was designed for people 18 and over, which meant that parties, dances and events could be held at the university pub. Teachers often attended these events as well; I and some of the other younger teachers got to know our students outside the classroom in this way.
After the five weeks were over, a number of students stayed in the village on an extended immersion program, to work and continue practicing their English. I was still in town as well, teaching another session. My former students were mostly staying together in two adjoining houses, just around the corner from my house, and they had regular parties to which I and a couple of colleagues were usually invited. I spent a number of weekend evenings at one or the other of these houses, drinking too much and staying up all night and generally behaving as I would with friends my own age.
It started to dawn on me, however, that I was not with friends my own age. I had been teaching since I was very young, and was accustomed to my students seeing me almost as a peer. I had failed to notice that I was no longer a peer at all – most of these people were 18, 19 and 20 years old, and I had just turned 30. What was more, even though they were no longer technically my students (and some of them never had been, having been in other classes), they clearly still perceived me as a teacher. One night the colleagues and I went out dancing with them, and they seemed both amused and bemused by this. They also seemed slightly shocked to see us smoking marijuana and engaging with them in conversations about relationships and sex. At first they seemed delighted that their teachers were “cool,” but as time went on I started to get the feeling that they didn’t quite know what to do with us, or how they should be relating to us.
One late night as I sat on the porch with a few of them, the police showed up, not once but twice, because we were making too much noise. The second time they appeared, I thought I saw one of them look at me slightly askance. It was probably my imagination – I don’t think I looked older than anyone else – but I was all at once profoundly uncomfortable. In my own mind I was suddenly ridiculous, like those middle-aged male professors who used to hit on me and my friends when we were undergraduates, and whom we always found so laughable and sad.
I had a sudden vision of Mr. G. Granted, when I knew him, he was older than I was that night on the porch, but nevertheless, he would never have spent a night reveling with his students – it would have seemed unutterably beneath his dignity – and some of his students would have been the same age as the students I was spending my evenings with now.
I didn’t go back to any of their parties after that.
I started teaching CEGEP the following September, and I found that my view of my students and my relationship to them was very different than it had been in the years leading up to that. I started to understand the need of students, especially young students, to see their teacher as a teacher and not as a pal. Recently a colleague commented on how, when she was a CEGEP student, she liked it when her teachers were friendly, personable and even “cool,” but not when they tried to be her friend. I thought of Mr. G again, and something clicked for me. Until students get to a certain point – graduate school, perhaps? – seeing a teacher as a “peer” is an uncomfortable experience. Those boundaries need to be clear.
Making the transition away from being a friend to my students and toward being a real “teacher” to them has been one of the greatest challenges of my teaching life. I am trying to find a balance where I can show them that I see them as individual people with individual lives, and that I am concerned about and interested in those lives, but that I know where to draw the lines, that I know my place. Memories of Mr. G have provided me with a very helpful model – it is possible to know your young students, and play a role in their lives that goes beyond the classroom, but it is important that the boundaries be clear, in order for them to be secure in their relationship with you and maintain a sense of respect that is as much to their benefit as it is to yours.