Disclaimer: The article below is based on the author’s first and second hand experience and concerns exclusively individual and group work when it comes to teaching English as a foreign language in language schools.
Have you ever become friends with your students? I will not be preaching against this, nor will I be advocating it as the first and foremost tool in your teacher toolbox, yet it is there, the common, human need to form friendship with people they know, like and spend time with. And why should it be different when it comes to a teacher-student relationship?
I have observed this in myself and other colleagues of the trade. Often this friendship makes your actual work easier, students feel more relaxed, taking in the knowledge with less effort, and yet, at times, the closeness becomes a nuisance and any kind of work ethics easily goes out the window. Here are a few benefits and potential problems I feel one should pay attention to when daring the treacherous seas of pedagogy in a friendship boat:
Teaching more than just your subject
You are getting to know them and they are getting to know you. You are two wellsprings of new knowledge that needs to be articulated - and what better way to use the language you are teaching than in non-scripted, non-prescribed discussions on any given topic you might be interested in and possessing a large amount of knowledge of. This can make your class feel crispy fresh every time, as long as you are not too much in love with the sound of your own voice.
Watch out for: Getting carried away – you still have work to do. Depending on the type of the course and students' needs, you might need to cut down on free-range and get some knowledge from the good ol’ pre-cooked sources, such as the course books.
Let yourself learn a thing or two
Each of your students most probably comes from a different background – with a load of knowledge to share with you and all other members of the group. Let them do it, create interest in the topics they are interested in or know a lot about and expand your own vocabulary by playing along!
Recommendation:Make sure you are still in control of the class – there is little advantage in letting students argue over whose turn it is to speak or protesting about the topic being boring. Everyone's voice should be heard, but some of them tend to drown out the others, and that is a thing you should prevent.
Choose the right people
You are going to say: “Well, of course we are going to, we're not stupid!” I am going to say: “You NEVER trusted a wrong person before?”
Recommendation:Pick. If you really want to teach and be friends at the same time, at least try not to choose superficially. In the course of time, you will get to know your students pretty well. Choose those that possess the qualities you normally look for in a friend, empathy and trustworthiness not being low on the list.
Choose the right time and place
If you are having a lot of fun on your classes (I’m mostly concerned with small groups here, 3-6 students) you might start to take that fun out of the classroom and into cafes, restaurants or, god-forbid, nightclubs (we ARE talking about the age 18+ here). Now, at some point you might find yourself sharing a pavement pizza with a person twice younger than you – and I am not really sure this is in any way going to help you when you start on your next Present Perfect lesson.
Recommendation:Never let yourself have too much fun with your student-friends. Whatever you thought about it, they do respect you and do not want to see you look like a buffoon. On the other hand, if you are already happily pub-crawling with your favourite group – at least make sure that your teaching course is finished, that they have passed any exams they were supposed to (hey, there's a reason to celebrate!) and that you will NOT be teaching them next semester/year. That way you can just go on being friends.
Find a common leitmotif interest/topic
You might be lucky enough to have something that everyone shares in – tap this source, a bit at a time in order to prevent it from going stale. You can add to this constantly growing topic by adding extra lessons you have researched yourself, for the benefit of the common interest within the group.
Watch out for: As anything else that is repeated, a topic/interest can be outgrown, especially when working with kids or teenagers. Do not let something you have enjoyed sharing become a bone of discontent – time its use right.
To sum up, there are pros and cons to the “friendship approach” and in perfect conditions, with the right people and a right set of mind, it can work wonders for you and your students. The hardest thing here is the need to maintain that slight detachment that still shows you are the one in charge.
To expand the metaphor from the beginning: if you are already on that friendship boat, daring the seas of pedagogy – at least make sure you are the one wearing the captain's hat.