Dont make friends with students – make connections

By Vince Ford

At the start of the school year do you look for common links with your students? Do you find similarities where you have a shared interest such as swimming, or you live in the same part of town, or you’ve taught their older brother or sister?
Finding common ground with others is how we build social bonds, it’s why ‘birds of a feather flock together.’ We look for what we have in common, we move socially closer to them and act in similar ways.
 Social Anthropologist Robin Dunbar summed it up in his Seven Pillars of Friendship.

rofession – education and career

I nterests and hobbies
L anguage – shared dialect brings us closer
L ocation
A ttitudes – values and worldview
R hythm – musical taste
S ense of humour
The more of these pillars we share, the more likely we are to build a strong connection.
I believe that forming bonds with your students through what you have in common is a mistake. If you develop ties through commonality, then what does that say to those students that are different to you? If they’re from a different culture or location, then they immediately feel marginalised in a classroom that values students who are like the teacher. Isn’t that how unconscious bias forms?
The Pillars of Friendship were a natural development when we lived in small communities and villages, where gossip thrived, where we knew who we could trust and who were outsiders.
Today far more of our students are already outsiders. Migration means that many have English as their second language. Interests, music and even sense of humour are often culturally entrenched therefore they differ along with the culture. Everything from electronics to entertainment and groceries is available online now, we don’t share the experience of common markets. It’s possible that you share nothing in common with pupils in your class.
If we don’t connect through commonality, then how do we connect?
I say that we need to listen to the stories of our students. Every one of them has their own interests, their own journey, their own way of viewing the world. If we ask our ākonga for their stories, and we genuinely listen then we can begin to understand them for who they are, not just how they are like us.

We need to invite our students, their families, and their communities to share their stories so that they feel valued and accepted but also so that we can understand what makes them who they are.
As you start the year, how do you plan to discover the stories of your students?