I have long found it important to build a relationship with students whenever possible. There is obviously a line of ethics and professionalism that cannot be crossed, but I find building relationships is essential to inspire and engage, something I hope to do with at least some students each semester. On a personal level, its important because this is why I enjoy teaching; through the low points of teaching, the marking and frustration, I have to believe that at least some of my students are real people (!) with goals, ambitions and struggles.
Ken Bain (2004) agrees, finding that “Highly effective teachers …often display openness with students and may, from time to time, talk about their own intellectual journey, it’s ambitions, triumphs, frustrations and failures…”
In my opinion, this relationship can extend beyond the classroom and course objectives, provided that extracurricular discussion has no direct affect on evaluation (on my end), or on course knowledge (on the students’ end).
To achieve this, I try to break down some barriers in the classroom with humour, often self-deprecating. My aim is for students to see me as a real person, rather than some all-knowing, all-powerful educational deity. Students who are ready to engage with me on a more personal level feel more comfortable doing so. With these students I might discuss program and career goals, or topics beyond the course content like climate change concerns or the ethics of science.
I also maintain a professional Facebook profile wherein I link or discuss articles medical and biological news, and sometimes articles about education that some students may find interesting. This is a way to engage students in Biology outside of the class and beyond the duration of the course. I invite all students to “friend me” but make clear that this is entirely separate from course content.
In upper level courses, I sometimes make a point of socializing with groups of students on a particular multi-day field trip. For many this is a unique and treasured experience, and makes the field trip even more memorable. In this case it also helps with a certain duty of care; at least I know that they are not engaging in more risky or ill-advised evening activities.
Bain, K. 2004. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press