I’ve been teaching studio art at the college level for 11 years now, and lately I’ve been noticing that there’s been a shift in terms of my relationship with my students. In the very beginning of my teaching career, none of my students had graduated yet, so I didn’t have a lot of interaction with students who were alums. Today, the freshman at RISD who I taught in 2007 have now been out of school for five years, which is long enough that my interaction with them after they leave RISD has changed a lot.
After a class ends, my students stay in touch with me to varying degrees: some students I literally never see again, some I run into on campus, others I’ll get a cup of coffee with to catch up, some have an identity crisis at some point and need advice, I’ve provided job references, hired alums to help with some small jobs related to my studio practice, and I’ve even had a few students call me on the phone in tears.
My relationship with my students changes tremendously once they are no longer in my class. Once a student leaves my class, there’s no longer a grade that is looming over their heads. When the grading situation no longer exists, I’ve found that it makes for a much more relaxed atmosphere and I can relate to them on a more casual basis.
When a student becomes an alum, my relationship with a former student shifts again. After all, we’re working both in the same professional world now. I remember when I was still in graduate school that a music professor once told me “eventually you and your former professors will become colleagues.” At the time, that seemed like such a strange concept, and I couldn’t quite wrap my head around regarding one of my former professors as a peer. I was still in student mode, so I still felt intimidated by my professors, even with ones I really liked.
For many years, I was the former student who made the effort to stay in touch with my former professors after school. I’ve known several of my former professors for 20 years now. I see two of them regularly, and I greatly cherish my friendships with them. Now, I’m the former professor, hearing from my former students who reach out to me.
My experience in studio art classes is that art professors and art students go through so much together. (especially at RISD) In every class, I go to hell and back with my class several times, all of us trying to stay in one piece along the way. That experience alone is enough to create a special bond. However, just because I interact with a student in a positive manner in the classroom, that doesn’t necessarily mean that a friendship will grow afterwards. I’ve had many students who were absolutely phenomenal in my class and accomplished extraordinary work, but who I didn’t connect with beyond the classroom.
To foster a connection after school, you have to be able to relate in a completely different context. (i.e. not in a classroom setting) When a student truly connects with you as a person and stays in touch with you over many years, it’s really special. With 11 years of teaching behind me now, my friendships with my former students have developed a depth that I could never have anticipated. I’ve had some pretty intense conversations with former students which have been extremely rewarding. For me, this is one of the best parts of being a professor.