Working through power positions in the learning and teaching relationship

I recently recused myself as singing teacher to a student with whom I share more than just a teacher-student relationship. When we first met, I got an immediate sense of discovering a kindred spirit in this young woman, and over the year, it proved to be so. The development of our friendship has put the kybosh on our learning and teaching roles, however. I have been reading Nel Nodding’s book “Philosophy of Teaching” (2007) and she states in it and in an article she wrote that (and I paraphrase as I don’t have the quote in front of me) when the boundaries between student/teacher and friendship blur, it can have an impact on the learning and teaching dynamic. This is certainly true of the relationship I began to develop with this young woman.

I realised pretty soon that I was getting as much, if not more, out of our interactions than she was! This was a little disturbing and, for me, unprofessional. I was paid to do a job, and help this person develop her singing technique: instead, she was helping me with issues of research. It became pretty clear that I needed to step down from the relationship as her teacher. We were also moving into fields of friendship and mutual work scenarios. I sent her an email stating this and she was sad but she too acknowledged the pitfall of the boundary blur and accepted with good grace. We completed the last of her singing lessons with a drink and food and a celebration of new beginnings. A brand spanking new friendship and work relationship. It’s rare when one senses a kindred spirit in someone and it’s important to nurture that when it happens, particularly as an adult. I am forty and thought I would never find easy friendships again. You know the ones you make when you’re a kid? You say: will you be my friend, and the other person says, yes, I will. So easy. Both she and I felt something really good about our interactions. It will be interesting to see where we go from here. Running, perhaps? Jogging and yoga? Movies? Parties and telephone conversations? Who knows? Certainly the exchange of ideas and thoughts and a mutual sense of loyalty is not impossible.

Nel Noddings statements have got me thinking about the learning/teaching relationship. How important is it to have the divide known between teacher and student? Is it important to be a friend or is it more important to maintain a professional boundary? My current experience suggests strongly that a boundary needs to be in place for a good teaching/learning interaction to take place, particularly if there has been a financial transaction and a promise of skill development. Negotiating the balance between student and friend is so very difficult! Acknowledgement of the difficulty should be stated up front, especially in adult learning and teaching situations, but those with maturity and reasonableness usually understand the scenario.

And of course, she has the most sublime, luscious singing voice that I have had to insist on singing duets with her, as a way of getting both her and me to continue singing. I have the lighter voice, but we are similar enough that it will be a fun thing to have a go at. I’m looking forward to developing this part, too.

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