Teaching & Learning
Building Healthy Teacher-Student Relationships
by Chantill Lopez
“There are hundreds of things teachers need to know in order to achieve greatness, many of which are discovered as needed.” – From: To Teach – The Journey In Comics by William Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner
In our studio, we have a student break down in tears at least once a month. We have students show up for sessions angry, distracted, worried, discouraged and sometimes bursting at the seams with excitement – the remnants of life outside the studio. It can be a lot to contend with as we attempt to guide them into the stream of their session. Not only are we confronted with the physical challenges, limitations or traumas of our students, but also the underpinnings of their mental and emotional states. In order to keep ourselves healthy, focused and effective we must be attentive to how we interact with our students from the first encounter.
In this article we will look at establishing clear values, setting boundaries, and building trust and respect as elements of the healthy teacher-student relationship. This relationship is as difficult to navigate and full of complexities as any other relationship we enter into. Yes, we have perhaps a clearer objective because we offer a specific service, and we are familiar with the desired outcomes, but human interactions of any kind come with infinite unexpected twists and turns. With a little forethought and clarity, however, we can better prepare ourselves to build lasting, healthy, goal-oriented and mutually rewarding relationships.
Examine our Pilates foundations…
First and foremost we can look at our foundations. What are our personal and professional values? For instance, do we consider our students to be primarily clients or primarily students? What kind of demeanor do we want to project – do we consider ourselves educators, service providers or both? What are our strengths – how do we use these to build our relationships? What do we need to keep balance in our work lives?
If we don’t answer these questions our impact and effectiveness are diminished, particularly in the face of challenging circumstances. For instance, a teacher friend of mine recently shared with me his struggle to establish respect and authority with his students. As a new teacher he found himself making uncomfortable concessions for his students in order to ensure they liked him or bought a package. Admittedly, he said what he found was that these early students would more easily take advantage of him by being late, expecting unreasonable schedule changes and more.
To Do: Sit quietly somewhere for 20 minutes or so and write down your answers to the previous questions. Choose the ones that resonate with you. It’s important to write them down in order to come back to them. Your answers may change, and likely will, but if you don’t capture them now you may not be aware when they do change. When we are unaware of our patterns of behavior that’s when we can go astray and find ourselves in compromising situations in our work. Our core values become the answers to most, if not all, of the challenges we may face in our teaching.
Once you’ve clarified your underlying values it is easier to establish comfortable boundaries that suit both your personality and your professional goals. One of the most significant pitfalls for teachers is developing an unclear line or no line at all between getting to know the student – often an intimate and revealing process – and the professional responsibility to provide an excellent results-driven service.
Master teacher Carol Appel (Carol Appel’s Pilates Plus Studio, Petaluma, California) has been teaching for more than 25 years. Appel has addressed these challenges time and again as a teacher trainer and emphasizes how to manage them in ways that manifest results for both teacher and student.
“Always focus on the client,” writes Appel. “The client is not our friend (despite the closeness), and is not there to listen to the teacher’s issues. The teacher is there to listen to the client’s issues. In this business, the teacher is the motivator and should be wholly focused on servicing the client’s needs. It is not a two-way street. As soon as the focus shifts to the teacher’s need, the relationship has changed.”
Because trust, rapport and understanding are such a large part of the teacher-student relationship in Pilates, it can be easy to blur the edges without realizing it. We let our personalities come through in order to “relate” to the student and we share body stories in order to establish understanding. We hold the space for students who are struggling physically or emotionally and try to keep them feeling safe. These interactions form bonds between teacher and student that can easily turn into opportunities for the teacher to rely on the student for reciprocation.
Recently, I spoke with a veteran teacher whose client made maintaining boundaries very difficult. After several sessions, the teacher realized that she had to take a firmer stance as to what was appropriate behavior during their session time. Although she faced the possibility of losing the student, she knew that to be an effective teacher she had to draw a hard line. Sometimes our students come for more than Pilates, looking for a place to be heard. These situations are equally important to navigate with thoughtfulness.
To Do: Make a list of areas in which you feel strongly that boundaries should be set. Consider your personality and teaching style, the type of environment you teach in, and your goals for your students. Write these down somewhere you can see them regularly. For example:
- Limit sharing personal details
- Establish time boundaries: starting/stopping on time and scheduling
- Enforce in-studio etiquette
- Make rules for communication and access outside of the studio
Many teachers stress the importance of establishing and tracking students’ goals and their success in meeting these goals. As teachers we must also be accountable to our students. When we make verbal and written agreements with our students and can demonstrate follow-through as well as provide consistent results we are much more likely to find ease in our work. This helps to develop trust. It’s also an avenue for practicing clear communication at all times.
To Do: How do you do the following things: establish trust and mutual respect, enforce accountability, and communicate in difficult situations? Think of a recent new student and note how you set the stage. Notice if what you say feels authentic. Are you asking the right questions and listening well to what the student needs? You can also take a day and notice what you say and how you behave with different students. Write these things down to use for further reflection and begin to notice where you can make changes. Look to teachers you admire and observe or ask how they handle situations you may be struggling with. When things get sticky you will find this work comes in very handy – you will be ready.