Are Your Students Your Friends?

Friendship is a tricky thing for any kind of mentor or instructor.

I strive to get to know my students as people. My job gives me a privileged one-on-one window into the lives of a very broad cross-section of people. I teach homeschooled kids, adults having a mid-life crisis, teens transitioning to college, kindergartners, retired folks. It’s a cool job when you get to sit and deconstruct Taylor Swift’s new video with a seven-year old singer (like I got to last week). Some lessons I’m a de facto therapist, but without the pressure of achieving particular therapeutic goals. I’ve heard some really amazing things (and crushing things) about people’s lives. I relish and enjoy all of this, and I don’t distance myself from it with a veil of professionalism or a colder focus on technique.

But being too friendly with students can backfire. Having “favorite students” (or a favorite student), as I’ve had in the past, can be dangerous. You can lose the focus on music. You can stop challenging students to be their best, because it’s uncomfortable to push a friend. You can be heartbroken when a student leaves lessons, because this unique form of friendship-justified-by-a-weekly-appointment is so vulnerable to changes in his or her life. By putting a 2nd label on the relationship–“friend” as well as “student”–you hedge in and boundary the mentoring relationship in an unnecessary way.

I think it’s best to be friendly, but remember that fundamentally your students are clients.

Despite that, it’s inevitable that something very akin to friendship often develops. And that is OK and beautiful. But it might be best not to give it a label. Let it breathe and be what it is.

I think the best and most enduring friendships happen after someone has left lessons. I taught one young lady from age 10 to 18, and now in her 20’s, she is definitely a friend, helping me run music events, housesitting and caring for my pets. The seed was planted in lessons, but ironically she was a quieter kid and in the beginning not as obvious a friend-to-be as some of my other teen students at the time (I have lost my post-lesson connections to other students I might have expected to be enduring contacts). I think in this area of life, as in many others, there are always surprises.


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