The educational community is light-years away from actually solving the problem of teacher-student relationships. After everything that has happened, the correct and appropriate people are still not asking the correct and appropriate questions. It is easier to hastily and hatefully point fingers at teachers who cross those fateful and tragic lines, but when it comes to preventative measures, there is simply nothing being done, even by those who are responsible for protecting the well-being of students.
“Just be careful…”
Here is a perfect example of how school districts are not attempting to prevent this problem: My wife is a teacher and during her first year of teaching, all new teachers spent an extra week before other teachers were required to report, going to in-services and trainings for New Teacher Orientation. And, being conscious of the issue herself (after all, she’s my wife), she kept waiting and waiting for something to be said about the issue of teachers and students becoming “too close” or having inappropriate relationships. Days and days of trainings and meetings and in-services passed, and nothing was said.
Finally, someone in a meeting managed to circle around to the issue. The speaker, nearing the end of his presentation said, “And you high school teachers, you’re not that far apart from the students in age, so, you know, just be careful.”
That was it.
That was the only thing she, as a new teacher, heard from anyone — at all — during her orientation. And here’s the kicker: It wasn’t even a school district employee who said that; it was a guy from the Teacher’s Union. He did not make this statement as a representative of the school district; he said it during his pitch to get new teachers to join the Teacher’s Union. So, essentially, the school district itself — the largest school district in the state, the same school district where I taught when I committed my crime — had nothing to say to new teachers about teacher-student relationships.
The one remark I hear the most regarding this issue is, “Well, it should be common sense for teachers not to have relationships with students.” I agree; I completely agree; I couldn’t agree more! But clearly it’s not, because it’s still happening — all the time. So if the mere assumption that it “should be common sense” is the extent of school districts’ attempts at preventing this from happening, then they are, by default and neglect, putting students at risk.
The First Question
But what can be done? How does a school district prevent teachers from pursuing inappropriate relationships with students? That’s the million-dollar question, but it’s not the first question that should be asked, and that’s the problem. School districts, principals, and even other teachers are seeing a problem and are asking how to solve it. But that cannot be the first question.
The first question must be: Why is this happening?
The problem is not that teachers are having relationships with students — that is the result. The actual problem is much more in-depth, much more complicated, and much more uncomfortable than that. Teachers and school administrators can no longer afford to assume that this is an insulated or isolated issue, specific to only the weird, sick, bizarre, mentally-ill teachers who happen to become mistakenly employed.
It is easier and more comfortable to cast horrific labels on horrific acts and only assume it is because horrific people are making horrific choices, plain-and-simple. Countering upon the possibility that good people can make bad choices makes many people uneasy, uncomfortable, and unusually anxious. After all, if good people are capable of evil, then anyone — any “normal” person — is capable of evil; this is not a comfortable notion to consider. So the human comfort zone includes the instinctive reaction to casting horrific labels on horrific choices.
But why? Why would casting these horrific labels on horrific acts actually be “more comfortable” for a person who perceives themselves as “normal?” The answer to that is simple, and it’s an answer I learned in prison.
Racism in prison is rampant, but oddly enough, it’s not about race — it’s about behavior. When I was in the county jail, spending several weeks waiting to be shipped off to prison, a guy in jail with me (who’d been to prison before) said, “If you’re not racist before prison, you will be after prison.” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, seeing as how I grew up with black friends and didn’t have a racist bone in my body. But then again, he’d been to prison and I hadn’t so I just figured I’d wait and see. But when I got there, I noticed something: Whites hated blacks, but blacks didn’t necessarily hate whites. But after talking to some of these racist white guys in prison, they expressed that their hatred of black people was based on their behavior — things black guys did which these white guys found disagreeable. So one day, I flat-out said to one of these racist white guys, “You don’t hate those guys because they’re black, you hate them because you don’t like what they’re doing or how they’re acting; so what you’re doing is, you’re trying to find a way to conceptually separate and distance yourself from them so that you can take comfort in the fact that you’re as different from them as possible. And the easiest way to do that is to find the most obvious manner in which you differ from them, which is, in this case, the opposite color of your skin. Basically, you’re taking the main difference between the two of you — skin color — and making it the main reason why you dislike them.” He didn’t quite track this logic, and frankly, I wasn’t surprised. “You don’t like them,” I said, trying to simplify the issue, “so you’re taking the most obvious thing that separates you two and making it the reason you don’t like them.”
He still didn’t get it. Oh well. But my reasoning was sound, and it is the same logic behind the reasons people are comforted by shouting “pedophile” and “pervert” at teachers who have relationships with students. By seeing their actions as the biggest difference between them (rather than the underlying problems and issues), teachers and parents can put up a social and moral barrier between themselves and the offending teacher by using these terms of extremity. However, the truth is actually much more unnerving. And that’s where Cognitive Distortions come into play.
In the contemporary American workforce, workplace sexual affairs have almost become commonplace; I should know, I had numerous affairs with numerous other teachers when I was teaching and many of my peers were engaging in similar behavior. Teachers often become engrossed in their teacher social circle, blending their social lives with their professional lives by having drinks with co-workers after work or meeting up on weekends for social functions. And of course, there is nothing wrong with this behavior and it can be very beneficial to creating a comfortable and cohesive work environment.
However, there comes a point when the lines and perspectives begin to blur — and it all begins with social acceptance. Teachers, like most professionals, want to be respected and appreciated. However, teachers often seek respect from their students as well as their colleagues. There have been many studies which support the hypothesis that students learn better from teachers they like and respect, both as educators and as people. Fostering a positive personable image as a teacher (rather than merely being a rigid educator) can be a valuable teaching tool for teachers. But it is certainly a slippery slope. Gaining “likability” from students and connecting with them on a deeper level opens the door for non-curriculum conversations such as sports, music, movies, television, etc. All of this is innocent bonding; discussing things like pop culture with students can be beneficial and many studies would indicate that it is actually encouraged — students will often refuse to learn from a teacher who is perceived as “out-of-touch.”
When I taught, my students knew that I was an avid runner and a baseball fan, they knew what music I liked, what movies were my favorites, what books I read, etc. As an educator, it provided a personal depth beyond simply being a teacher, and students were responsive to the notion that they were learning from a “real person” and not just a robotic educational statue, programmed to recite facts about Shakespeare and grammar.
As far as teachers are concerned, students should be viewed as one thing — and one thing only: A product of their occupation — a work product. Student achievement and student success is Priority #1. “Getting to know” students is not a necessity beyond knowing what is needed to help them succeed in academia. Students are work products. Being viewed as a “regular person” should be used simply as an academic strategy, not a social status mark.
However, for some teachers, the script flips. As teachers seek to be viewed by students as “regular people,” those same teachers sometimes begin to view their students as “regular people” as well. The social discourse is a two-way conversation, so as students learn a teacher’s likes and dislikes, the students express their own, adding depth to themselves as well. And the slope grows more slippery by the second.
Peer to Peer
When students start seeing teachers as regular people, studies indicate they are more apt to learn from them. But when teachers start viewing students as regular people, history has shown they have a tendency to view them as peers rather than work products. The adult sees the teenager as an adult peer rather than a subordinate student. And this line is only further blurred by the multiple mediums of communication.
Teachers begin giving out their cell phone numbers and allowing students to text them; teachers begin “friending” students on Facebook and allowing students to “follow” them on Twitter; teachers begin allowing students to send them messages on Instagram or Snapchat or any number of social media outlets. At that point, the student has ceased to be a student and has become a peer. So why is it any surprise that so many teachers blur the line between teenage peer and adult peer, subsequently viewing these teenagers as adults? And when two peers, perceived as adults to one another, become attracted to each other, why is society shocked and surprised when that first kiss happens, a relationship ensues?
In the day and age when emails reach our phones just as quickly as text messages, there is really no feasible reason for a student to have a teacher’s personal cell phone number. The teacher may see it as only a means of communication with little-to-no differentiation between text messages or emails or Facebook messages, etc. However, the student does not see it that way. The student sees access to a personal cell phone number or a social media connection as a deep and personal view into the life of the teacher. They live in a time when social media is as personally intimate as a face-to-face conversation, whereas many adults view social media as a simple way to connect with people and post a few vacation photos.
Therefore, assuming the teenager can view these things through the same lens as an adult is to assume the teenagers are adults themselves — this is another tragic cognitive distortion. Perceiving teenagers as peers (or adults) through social or peer-like interactions only precipitates the possibility of inappropriate contact.
Another significant predicating factor which leads to the crossing of boundaries between teachers and students is the teacher’s insistence on being a part of the students’ social hierarchy. It is human nature (for the most part) to want to be liked, respected, even admired; however, many teachers take this concept beyond logic by wanting to be viewed as the “cool” teacher by the students in their classes (or even not in their classes), and this mindset is one of the first variables which begins to murky the waters of propriety.
In researching the many cases of unlawful teacher/student relationships, this was a recurring theme of many of the disgraced educators. They were well-liked, popular, and “cool” teachers; rarely was the disgraced teacher “odd” or “creepy” or “weird.” Far more often than not, it was a respected, well-known, attractive, young teacher who crossed the line of propriety with a student.
Essentially, this is the other end of the spectrum. Rather than the adult cognitively distorting the teenagers as fellow adults, they are distorting themselves as teenagers. For some teachers, it’s their chance to be popular in high school again, or for the first time. In this instance, the teacher isn’t attracted to the student because the student is a teenager, but rather the teacher is viewing him/herself as a teenager, part of the social hierarchy of the high school status quo. But again, the teacher is not attracted to the student because of age, but despite it.
When a teacher inserts him/herself into the students’ social hierarchy, the teacher crosses from professionalism into personalism, which is an area no teacher should be, with the exception of very few extenuating circumstances. However, understanding that there are no absolutes, it is safe to say that a high school teacher has no place in the friend zone of his/her students. And while it is fine (and even beneficial) for teachers to provide their students with a little more depth of personality, when a teacher begins to seek status with students, that is the beginning of the gray area.
The fact of the matter is this: Right now, for all of those “social” things, a vast majority of teachers, principals, school officials, and school districts turn a blind eye to social interactions; nothing is done, and no one seems to care — until that first kiss happens.
The unassuming fact school administrators need to realize is this: Anything beyond basic teacher-student social normality is off-limits. There is no viable reason for a student to send a teacher a text message. There are always other alternatives. And there is absolutely positively no reason for any student to have any social media interaction with any teacher at any time. If this is not the policy of a school and/or school district, then that school district is practicing gross negligence and should be liable for legal repercussions.
Admittedly, I was guilty of breaking all of these norms. That’s not to say this is why I did what I did — I made my own choices — but as far as perpetuating circumstances go, it was certainly on the list. But one important lesson can be drawn from this: This is a warning sign — an indicator — that a teacher is either having an inappropriate relationship with a student or is setting him/herself up for the possibility in the future, either perceptively, intentionally, or inadvertently. When teachers begin viewing students as peers rather than work products, the chances of an inappropriate relationship increase from improbable to possible.
 …other than the remarks directly ridiculing me for my own choices regarding this issue…
 Obviously, the quantity of these occurrences did not make them permissible.
 Male or female. It is important to note that the disparity of numbers between male teachers and female teachers who cross the lines of impropriety with students is not as wide of a gap as media coverage would imply.
 For instance, favorite sports teams, musical preference, marital status (if married), children, etc. These details add depth to a teacher, making him/her more relatable.