On Relationship: Teacher and Student

Md. Anwarul Kabir

Published on December 18, 2007

During the closing decade of the last century, perhaps on the first or second day of my graduate programme in the university of Wales, UK at the end of the lecture, an young girl student wearing short skirt and transparent T-shirt sat (to my eastern eyes the dress was provocative indeed!) on the professor’s desk and started to chat with the professor. To my utmost surprise the middle aged professor did not find any wrong in it and without hesitation answered the queries of the girl. As a stranger to western classroom environment, it was a sort of cultural shock for me. In our culture we place our teachers in a respectable place like our parents and so perhaps most of us would not approve of such close interaction between teacher and student.  On another instance, when I addressed one of my professors as ‘sir’, the professor interrupted me and advised, “Mr. Kabir, please don’t call me ‘sir’. I don’t like this colonial word. My name is Moseley. You may call me Moseley.”  Again in the Sub-continental culture, addressing a teacher by name, no doubt, is considered to be an offence. From these two instances, it is evident that the post modern Western society has redefined teacher-student relationship in different ways from that of ours. In fact, the contemporary western society prefers to see both the teacher and students at the same level and emphasises the friendship in teacher-student relationship.  

Many of my young colleagues are really confused to define the teacher-student relationship. What should be the salient features of such relationship? In this context, should we follow the western ethos or should we cling to our tradition?  In our society, traditionally teacher-student relationship is viewed as parent-child relationship. The root of such perception originates in our religious traditions, be it Hinduism, Buddhism or Islamic one.  In Hinduism guru-shishya (teacher-disciple) tradition is a spiritual relationship which is centered around the transmission of knowledge from a guru to a shishya. The guru-shishya relationship, in fact, is a practice which has evolved into a fundamental component of Hinduism, since the beginning of the tradition of oral teaching of the Upanishad (2000 BC), a major Hindu scripture. Knowledge, whether be it spiritual or other secular forms of knowledge, such as, warfare, music, art, is imparted through developing relationship between guru and shishya.  The principle of this relationship is that knowledge, especially subtle or advanced knowledge, is best conveyed through a strong human relationship based on ideals of student’s respect, commitment, devotion and obedience, and personal instruction by which the student eventually masters the knowledge that guru embodies.  Like Hinduism, in Buddhism the guru-shishya relationship is sacred one and stresses on a strong devotional aspect on the part of the student. Rob Preece, a contemporary sociologist has observed that in the Buddhist tradition  there is supposed to be a special hell where those who criticize the teacher will go. If there were such a hell he suggest it is the hell of guilt, fear and torment a disciple is likely to suffer for his challenge to the authority of the teacher. In Islamic tradition also teacher-student relationship is comparable to the parent-child relationship. In this context eminent Islamic Jurisprudent Professor Dr. Sano Koutoub Moustapha of International Islamic University, Malaysia, has argued that, “The relationship between teacher and student should be based on mutual love and respect. The teacher should treat the students as his or her own children, and the students should consider the teacher as their own parent.”  In essence, it is evident that the sub-continental religions has provided teacher with full authority over the students. This, in turn, produces power imbalance in teacher-student relationship placing the teacher in more powerful position. The power imbalance that arises in teacher-student relationship places the teacher in the more powerful position.  Based on above discussions, it can be argued that, in the sub-continent religions have shaped the teacher-student relationship even in the sphere of secular education. However, the older teacher-student relationship was straightforward and was based on one to one relationship. But the formal institutionalization of education and subsequent commercialization of it has transformed this relationship into many to many scenarios adding manifolds complexities. 

Salient features of parent-child relationship as we have been practising in the case of teacher-student relationship work well as long as teachers are conscious about their apex position in such relationship and refrain from abusing powers that are vested upon them. As in general, the teacher is from the senior generation from their student counterparts, it is the teacher’s responsibility to establish the basis of relationship. Unfortunately, power imbalance in student-teacher relationship of this part of the world sometime alienates the students from the teachers. Empirical studies have revealed that many people who have experienced problems in their relationship with teachers; it is often because the teacher stays in the place of the authority and gets it wrong. Some teachers, in reality, show extreme authoritarian attitude towards their students without assessing the implication of it on the students’ psychology.  It is evident that many students, out of fear, can not interact freely with their respective teachers. Such distance often creates communication barrier between teacher and student. This, in turn, hampers the academic life of the student as in the learning environment, proper communication between teacher and student is a must.

To facilitate the ‘best communication’ channel between teacher and student, the West in the mid 20th century has redefined teacher-student relationship. For this, they have emphasized on friendly relationship and abated the magnitude of authoritarian characteristic of the teacher over the student.  Though this friendly teacher-student relationship has largely alleviated the fear in the psyche of the student centring his/her teacher, which in turn has created pleasant communication channel between teacher and student, an essential criteria for teaching and learning environment.   But too much friendliness in teacher-student relationship has an adverse effect too as observed in many countries in Europe including the UK.  Teachers, especially at school/college level, have lost their authoritarian power in controlling the students as the law prevents the teacher to punish even an unruly student. Many of the young students frequently take this advantage as their freedom and disobey their teachers. This sort of behaviour is detrimental to congenial learning environment. So, in the UK, especially in the public schools, as reported by many teachers, due to this unruly behaviour of some students, frequently fail in maintaining the class room discipline.  For the same reason many meritorious graduates in the UK do not take interest to accept the school teaching as their careers in public schools.     

Not only at the school level, even at the tertiary level over friendly relationship between teacher and student has the adverse impact as some empirical studies suggest. At the university level some time friendly relationship between the teacher and the student may turn into intimate relationship. According to the guidelines policy for teacher-student relationship of Windsor University the intimate personal relationships are defined as “including but not limited to a sexual relationship, the formation of a deep emotional bond, physical contact inappropriate to a teacher-student relationship and communication whether in person or not inappropriate to a teacher-student relationship”. In this context, Bruce Tucker, Windsor’s associate vice-president has commented that, ‘an intimate relationship between a professor and a student is exploitive in the sense that there is a power differential between the two and the student can be victimized, and that is inappropriate." This is not an exclusive problem of Windsor University. Rather facing the similar sort of problems, many other universities in the developed world have formulated policy for streamlining professor-student relationship.

Then what should be an ideal teacher-student relationship? In fact, there is no universal prescription for defining a standard for teacher-student relationship. Any relationship between two persons depends on socio-cultural context, age groups, as well as the taste of individuals involved in that relationship. Despite this reality, still we can draw a baseline principle for effective teacher-student relationship of our own considering our socio-cultural ethos, students/teachers’ psychology, and modern scientific teaching methodology. We should remember that the expectation from a teacher in our society is quite high and so the society has given the teacher authoritarian power over the student. A teacher is always a teacher and the expectation of the society is that a teacher should be a role model to the eye of the student.  Keeping this in mind, teachers should set up the effective and efficient relationships with their respective students. However, in this effort teachers should not misuse the authoritarian power  vested upon them by virtue of their social status. Rather, teachers should earn certain attributes so that students voluntarily obey the instructions of the teachers with much respect. Some of these attributes like sound knowledge in subject area to teach, honesty, sincerity, integrity, principle to keep the commitment can be cited. Through perseverance, practice and strong determination a teacher can acquire these qualities over the span of time.

In the corporate world, give and take is the prime motivating factor in setting up relationship with the client and so the win-win situation plays as a major role there.  But the teacher-student relationship should be based on dedication, at least from the teacher’s side. So, in dealing with the student, a teacher should not assess what he/she is going to receive from the student in return, especially in financial term.

It has been already emphasized that for effective and efficient learning environment congenial communication channels should persist in teacher-student relationship. By misappropriating the authoritarian power over the student given by our society, the teacher must not instil any sort of panic into the mindset of the student so that he/she becomes afraid of interacting with his/her respective teachers.  So, it is imperative that the teachers should be friendly with their students.    But considering our socio-cultural aspects, teachers need to draw a boundary and they should not be over friendly with their students. Teachers should guide this relationship with a self imposed restriction. On part of a teacher, this is quite possible.  After all, the teacher is the major actor in teacher-student relationship!!  

Md. Anwarul Kabir is an educationist, working at the Computer Science Department, AIUB and a freelancewriter.