Breaking Classroom Barriers

Written by Francisca Lam | Photo by Cheryl Ting | Supervised by Jeffrey Yeung

Teacher-student relationships have always been a grey area – administrations globally have struggled to find a balance between an appropriate, yet healthy teacher-student relationship. In an academic setting, what is appropriate between a teacher and student has often been blurred – different societies perceive appropriateness differently. This tension often leads to discussions on how far teachers and students can push the boundaries of a healthy, working relationship; after all, teachers are bound to students by a contract or trust. Having any form of an “unprofessional relationship” can breach the trust, despite the consent involved. Research has often shown that teachers can offer support for students when seeking different academic and vocational routes; moreover, studies have shown that it can cut the rate of students dropping out of school by up to a half. Emily Gallagher of NYU Steinhardt demonstrates that teachers “do play an important role in the trajectory of students throughout the formal schooling experience”. These findings demonstrate that regardless of schooling background, affluence, teachers should develop measures to enhance and establish a positive discipline climate in a classroom.

The concept of a “teaching relationship” to some, like parents who only care about the number on the transcript, solely believe that teachers are only meant to pass down knowledge to students. But in actuality, benefitting the student requires support outside of classroom walls. David Chan, from the Department of Educational Psychology in The Chinese University of Hong Kong finds that the basis of a strong teacher-student relationship is based on if the student wants to learn, and if the teacher wants to teach. A good student-teacher relationship ultimately contributes to how much the student will get out of their educational experience.

Of course, appropriateness is hard to determine in the situation between an individual teacher and student. A platonic relationship in one community could be an inappropriate relationship in another. Professionally, teachers are expected to only develop relationships with a student within the boundaries of a classroom. Simultaneously, teachers are allowed to develop bonds with students beyond a regular classroom setting. Professionalism is supposed to ensure all teachers and adult staff have proper relationships with students that don’t cross so-called personal boundaries.

One of the key benefits from harvesting a relationship that is part of regular professionalism is for teachers to get to know their students on a more personal level, to understand the student’s problem while fully supporting the student who needs it. People perceive “regular professionalism” as passing down knowledge from a teacher to a student but on a deeper, more interpersonal level. However, when does this become too personal – will interacting with a teacher on a more personal level reach an inappropriate stage? To what extent can a more personal relationship, a friendship even, between a teacher and a student be educationally and experientially profound for both parties? The conversation between a pair is worth having, to always put the students best interests in mind, but to also protect both parties.

However, it’s worth noting that a student can never be a teacher’s best friend, and vice versa. Even if a teacher-student pair exchange friendlies and nitty gritties of their lives on top of their working relationship, that doesn’t mean that they suddenly become best friends. But developing a healthy friendship allows the student to foster a bond with their teacher, and to see them as a more sincere figure. It isn’t to say that a teacher should be their peer, but a strong working relationship requires an interpersonal backbone to support it.

Gallagher lists substantial research to stress the importance of teacher-student relationships, especially during the transition years during the period from middle school to high school or during – a period of stress for a student. She lists motivation as a link towards student perceptions of teacher expectations. Studies demonstrate that high school students formulate their expectations based on how they perceive their teacher’s expectations. Students who perceive their teachers to have high expectations of their academics are more motivated to try and reach the standard set in comparison to their peers who perceive low expectations from teachers. Motivation is an influencer towards academic achievement, and the link depicts the importance of a strong teacher-student relationship in order to breed further academic achievement.

“Some of the main concerns for a teacher getting too close to a student is favouritism; when the rest of the class knows that a teacher is particularly close with a student, naturally, the teacher will devote more of their attention towards the one student. This may be a generalisation that I see based on what I know from teacher-student relationships as a whole, but it’s one of the things that I’m worried about when thinking of reaching a more friendly relationship with a student. I don’t want to be perceived as biased since I know that it’s a concern that a lot of students have, so I try to maintain neutral and open-minded with all my students. ” – Anonymous member of CIS

Although there isn’t an official rule against teacher-student fraternisation in CIS, it is a social convention that is generally frowned upon – very rarely will you see a teacher engage with a student outside a classroom, even with something as simple as eating lunch.  Society asks for teachers and students to be wary of the fact that there should be no interposition mingling, even though teachers know that they always should bear the consequences if something wrong happens. The age-gap that is inherent in teacher-student relationships creates a power imbalance that is irreversible. Considering that a student will always be significantly younger than a teacher, both teachers and students should contemplate the boundaries that need to be established. They need to explore the boundaries that need to be taken in order for both the teacher and the student to enjoy a platonic relationship.  Regardless, any friendship with a significant age gap leads to a power imbalance and it should be discussed between both parties and with the older person automatically assuming all responsibility from it.

“Back in Hangzhou, it was really easy to get to know anyone, even if it was an adult to a student. The policies were extremely flexible and each coach mentor was trusted to set their own mentor-student boundaries. Coach mentors were encouraged to view the students as younger friends. It was helpful for a lot of students that coach mentors were close to them since a lot of the students needed a older familial figure while they were away to, in a way, substitute for their parents. The flexibility that coach mentors had offered opportunities for students to confide in an older figure that had gone through experiences similar to them, and to seek advice from an adult figure that they could trust. For a lot of the students, the coach mentors became sibling, even friendly figures that the students learned to trust over the period of time that they were in Hangzhou.”     – Anonymous member of CIS

When looking back at CIS, students aren’t seen often interacting with teachers outside of classrooms. Occasionally, yes, there will be “hello’s” that fly around the corridor and there are scenarios where students engage in polite conversations with faculty members. But it’s almost jarring to see students  engage in genuine, interpersonal conversations with teachers.

As an example, the way the school is designed contributes to the lack of student-teacher interactions. Take the new staff-rooms; their located in the top two floors of the building, and inaccessible from most students. Teachers are located in their own suites, separated from students in the lower levels. Students need to go into the “green room” to ask if their teacher is here, and then ask them to come down from their cubicle, and then give them help in the “green room”.

Although the teachers are now theoretically more accessible because they’re all in the same office, the creation of the suites creates a physical divide. Previously, the old, scattered staff-rooms that represented the departments on each floor allowed for students to freely walk into find a teacher to ask for help, or even to have a conversation. The fact that students have to use a system to talk to teachers can instill fear into the students, and the task that seemed so straightforward previously now is so much more daunting. Considering the generation gap between teachers and students, the fact that teachers are considered as the heads of students, it’s natural for students to already feel existing pressure from asking teachers for help – especially when they are not as approachable as they previously were.

“I personally think that teachers should get to know students better because of the culture that we have at CIS. I don’t think that it’s completely wrong to build a better relationship with my teachers because I know that in a school like CIS, teachers will know when to draw a line. I trust my teachers in when I know that when I ask for help, teachers will be offering help because I want my academics to get better and not because of another reason. I trust my teachers to have my best interests in heart academically and I know that since they want us to get better. I understand that having a friendly teacher-relationship doesn’t give me an extra advantage, but I know that teachers have got my back when I need help with studying.” – Anonymous member of CIS

Would students benefit from time with teachers that extend regular classroom boundaries? As of current, the only time that students have with teachers is during advisory, where students have limited time with their designated teacher supervisor. Although advisory is mandatory, it would be plausible for the administration to explore methods where teachers could open classrooms during their downtime in order for students to seek help in a casual fashion – maybe, students could even use these opportunities to socialise with teachers beyond classroom walls. Students could benefit from the extra time – some of them are reluctant and fearful to initiate conversations with teachers to start conversations about seeking help.

Generally speaking, teacher-student relationships are a difficult subject. It’s hard to manoeuvre and determine whether or not a teacher should cross the line of ultimate professionalism to dainty friendlies with a student. According to social constructs, a teacher is meant to be building a connection with their students. However, society deems that a minor/adult relationship in Hong Kong should be legally and biologically bound, and that professionalism in a teacher means to impart knowledge onto a student and for them to remain supportive and involved with a student’s endeavours – when doing so, this is known as professional friendliness. However, the society that we live in inhibits opportunities for minors to be friends with an adult. Citizens are wired to think that the only appropriate minor/adult relationships should be between family, while in school, everything academic related should be between a teacher and the student and should remain totally professional.

In order to be truly effective to help students achieve their potential, teachers should cultivate strong working relationships with their students. There is nothing unprofessional about reaching out to a student when a student needs help or is facing a hardship; helping a student in need falls under the definition of professional. The bond between a teacher and student leads to potential success if the teacher is successful in motivating and assisting the student.

Although fostering relationships is already something that teachers do, it still needs to be mandated in order to foster interpersonal links with students. It is something that teachers should work harder to do as the years pass by to offer more support to the students that shape the community. Teachers need to be encouraged to foster an interpersonal link, not because they have to, but for the benefit of the student. It’s important to maintain appropriateness but it isn’t wrong to be friendly in a professional manner. Both parties need to offer ways to reach a compromise in order to maintain healthy professionalism.


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