Should Professors and Students Be Friends?

Nov 14, 2011

College can serve as the ideal time to make as many new friends as possible, but can friendships between students and their professors get in the way of the learning process? Education Insider takes a look at if in these cases making new friends can be a bad idea.

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By Jessica Lyons

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The Student-Professor Relationship

If you're one student in a class of hundreds or only have a professor once during all of your college years, the chances are your only interactions with your teachers will be brief and impersonal. But if instead you're in a small class or have the same professor for multiple classes, like ones in your major, you might have the opportunity to get to know them on a deeper level. This could be through classroom interactions, office hour meetings or maybe even just while running into each other on campus. As Andrew Kania of Trinity University's Department of Philosophy once noted, schools sometimes even encourage their students and professors to develop close friendships, particularly at 'small colleges and universities that pride themselves on faculty-student interaction.' These relationships can play a pivotal role in how a student performs in class and how he or she feels about his or her academic experience.

The Benefits of Getting to Know Your Professors

It's understandable that students would want to get to know their professors and benefit from the vast knowledge they could share. Many students attend a particular school because of the credentials of its faculty, and by getting to know professors better, students can learn from them even outside of the classroom.

Feeling more personally connected to your professors could also help you feel more engaged in class material. When you're in a class where it feels like the professor is talking at you instead of talking to you, it can be hard to get really excited about the topics being covered. But if you develop a friendship with the professor you might care more about what they have to say and might even end up feeling increasingly comfortable contributing in class and asking questions.

Making the effort to befriend your professor could also provide you with an invaluable resource even after you've completed the course. He or she could act as a mentor for you, giving you useful advice to help you succeed in college and beyond.

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A Friendship with Potential Problems

While there are certainly benefits to be had from professor-student friendships, they can have their downsides too. Washington University in St. Louis states that some of the potential risks associated with these relationships are 'conflict of interest, breach of trust, abuse of power and breach of professional ethics.'

First of all, it could be difficult for professors to separate their personal friendships from their professional duties. For instance, if a student does poorly on a paper and the professor knows a bad grade will hurt him or her, the professor could be tempted to give a higher grade than is deserved because of their friendship. On the flip side, students might not give an assignment their all because they figure being friends with the person grading it means they're entitled to a better grade.

Of course student-professor friendships could also cause conflicts in the classroom. This could happen because other students feel that there is favoritism going on, which might lead to an unwillingness to participate in class discussions or even a lack of motivation to do well. Learning environments could also feel uncomfortable if a problem within the friendship makes its way into the classroom.

How Schools Address the Issue

Many higher education institutions have policies in place to prohibit sexual or romantic relationships between professors and their students. For example, Washington University says that, even if the relationship is consensual, it is not allowed if the faculty member is in a position of authority over that particular student. California's Saddleback College says that 'faculty-student relationships are unethical when they hinder any student's academic progress or create a situation in which any student is either favored or negatively impacted on grounds other than academic performance.'

How to Handle Student-Professor Friendships

It seems like it can be difficult to provide a complete policy for student-faculty friendships, though, since schools don't want to create policies that are too limiting and might completely discourage any sort of interactions at all. But there are several things that professors and students can keep in mind to make sure, even if they do pursue a platonic relationship, it doesn't hurt the education process.

  • Before entering the friendship, examine your motivations. If it's just because you want better grades or to basically use the person for your own gain, you should definitely skip out on pursuing it.
  • Set boundaries. As it becomes obvious that a friendship is developing, have a serious talk about some ground rules so that both parties have an understanding about things like the appropriate way to address each other in class.
  • Keep the personal and professional separate. If there is an argument, always keep it out of the classroom and don't let personal feelings get in the way of completing an assignment on time or giving a fair grade.
  • Don't get too personal until the class is over with. While a friendship between professors and students can be beneficial when handled properly, for closer friendships or even romantic relationships it's probably best to put them on hold until the two individuals aren't in the same classes any more.

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