Whether or not school officials and administrators want to admit it, the issue of improper student-teacher relationships has reached epidemic proportions. This is troubling for many reasons, one of which is that experts agree that a majority of these relationships are never reported. It is estimated that approximately five percent of teachers have had some sort of inappropriate interaction or relationship with a student.
To put this into perspective, allow this example: As a teacher at Wichita East High School, I had approximately 150 fellow teachers in my building. Therefore, statistics indicate that as many as seven (or more) teachers may have either had or are currently having an inappropriate relationship with a student – in one building. Of course, this is not factually supported about this particular school, but statistically, it is entirely possible.
This issue is not adequately addressed and teachers are rarely (if ever) trained and prepared to handle teaching on a personal level. Never once as a teacher was I ever advised on how to handle the advances of a student. The most I can ever recall being told about the issue was an annual one-sentence caution to “avoid compromising positions.” And while many would remark, “That should be common sense,” the issue is much deeper and more complex than one simple cautionary statement during the principal’s yearly sexual harassment lecture.
Gender is not an issue either. Experts also agree that male and female teachers are both guilty of contributing to this epidemic. Though the stereotype may indicate that male teachers are far more likely to engage in this behavior, facts and statistics do not support any sort of majority either way. The fact of the matter is this: Male or female, teachers are human beings, capable of making mistakes.
Understandably, categorizing this as a “mistake” may seem like the situation is being down-played. However, when seeking the genuine reasoning behind this epidemic, it cannot be ignored that in many (or most) of these instances, it is not a case of an older person seeking a younger target for the purposes of sexual gratification, but is instead an instance of an otherwise well-meaning person allowing his/herself to fall into a very bad situation. By acknowledging this, educators will be able to better guard themselves against one of the major causes of this epidemic: Teachers are forced to spend more time with their students and less time with their friends and families due to an over-worked and under-paid profession that is constantly demanding more while offering less. But again, this is not an offer of blame or alleviation of responsibility. It is simply an additional contributing factor to this issue. It’s simple to point a finger and say “Sicko!” or “Pedophile!” or “Pervert!” But the fact of the matter is, none of that fear and hate-fueled finger-pointing does anything to remedy the situation, and in most cases, actually makes the situation worse.
Granted, there are instances where teachers have relationships with students with strictly predatory motives. For example, in Olathe, Kansas in 2012, Michelle Preston, a 28-year-old female teacher was convicted of using Facebook to lure multiple male students to her house for the purposes of sex, and it was discovered that she did in fact have sexual intercourse with several underage male students. Thus, a teacher who actively pursues multiple students for sex is undoubtedly a predator.
Shortly after her accusations were publicized, Ms. Preston attempted suicide by driving her SUV off of a bridge. She survived.
Nevertheless, of all the instances of inappropriate teacher-student relationships, this type of case is in the minority. The instances that gain media attention are only a small portion of this issue. And characterizing every teacher in the same category as Ms. Preston is errant and ignorant. The truth is – as supported by research – a vast majority of teacher-student relationships are never known about or publicized. But the negative effect that this has on the student is the same none-the-less.
Students look to teachers for leaders, role-models, and guidance. When a teacher engages in a relationship with a student, it can be devastating to their outlook on school, adults, and even life as a whole. They end up being unsure who they can trust, putting up emotional barriers, and becoming distant from friends and family. Being a teacher is a trusted position. Parents give teachers their children for nearly the entire day, five days a week, and expect educators to make them better students, harder workers and better people. This is not an unreasonable request on the part of parents, but when a teacher engages in a relationship with a student, he/she has severely violated the trust that parents place within their students’ teachers.
As I fell into this epidemic, none of this was at the forefront of my thinking. However, now, as a father of a young girl, I place an immense amount of trust in my daughter’s teachers, and if a male teacher had the same relationship with her as I had with my former student, my rage would be unending. I do not – at all – blame her parents for reporting me. As a parent, I would have done the same. And while my willingness to take full responsibility for my action is important, my heart is also broken for what we did. The fact that we were both willing participants in the relationship is irrelevant. As a teacher, I lost sight of what was right, what was proper, and what was best for my students, despite the fact that she was a) No longer my student, and b) No longer attending the school where I taught.
At the nucleus of this epidemic, there is one root cause: Teachers begin to view students as equals rather than subordinates, seeking approval and status in the eyes of students for social reasons rather than seeking approval and status in the eyes of colleagues for professional reason. Teaching is a job, and students are a product of that job. When the student-teacher barrier is blurred or breached, that product is damaged, and that teacher has failed at his/her job.
Every epidemic has a cure. In this case, the cure is transparency, awareness, and education. Teachers, school administrators, and future teachers in college must be made aware of this issue. Someone must be willing to stand up for this cause in order to teach those who teach others, to save students of the future from suffering the same betrayal of my student of the past. In all my time as a teacher, I never once heard of anyone telling this aspect of the story. Sure, there were people harping about bullying, teen pregnancy, and drugs, but it’s as if society forgets that teachers – contrary to popular belief – are human too, and also make mistakes.