In previous posts we discussed the importance of positive teacher-student relationships in fostering student engagement. Today we will examine a few types of negative teacher-student relationships and the harm they do to students, the instructional process and the teaching profession in general. Teacher training institutions, principals, and schools’ boards of management must emphasize the importance of teacher professionalism at all times. There must be clear policies and statements detailing inappropriate, unacceptable, and criminal teacher-student relationships. The penalties for these breaches of trust should be attached. During recruitment interviews, prospective teachers should be screened for any tendency to encourage negative or improper relationships with students. Background checks may be needed in a few cases.
The vast majority of teachers are trustworthy and are governed by a moral compass. They operate in a professional manner and set very high standards for their students and for themselves. They would never breach the sacred trust of students, parents, school administrators, or the society at large. However, a seemingly small but growing minority of teachers of both sexes have shaken the foundations of the teaching profession by engaging in negative or improper relationships with students. They generally pay a high professional and, at times, legal price if they are caught.
The first type of negative teacher-student relationship I want to look at is usually created by young, inexperienced and immature teachers who are new to the profession. In an effort to gain acceptance and approval from students, they become too friendly or familiar. They consider students as peers and give them too much latitude. They are too lenient with the students and fail to support the professional standards set by more experienced and skilled teachers. They may even adopt some forms of student behaviour. This approach to teacher-student relationships does not work. It is counterproductive and usually leads to poor classroom management and control, low student attainment levels, and eventual disrespect from the same students. Teachers and students must respect the boundaries that separate them. These boundaries serve a very important purpose.
The second type of negative and inappropriate teacher-student relationship I highlight may be physically non-sexual, but is improper, nevertheless. It occurs when teachers, including experienced teachers, fail to maintain a professional distance between their students and themselves. They get too close to, and too personal with students. Anytime the teacher-student relationship is not operating in the best interests of the student, something is seriously wrong. Teachers must always be good role models. In this second type of improper relationship teachers may flirt with students and engage in dubious conversation with them, in which too much information of a deeply personal or sexual nature is shared unnecessarily.
This type of negative and inappropriate teacher-student relationship is often facilitated by computers, mobile devices and the social media, which are all very prevalent today. Many emails, text messages and instant messages go back and forth among students and teachers every day. The vast majority of these communications are appropriate and curriculum based. Teachers and students post homework, assignments and projects online and contact each other frequently. However, this same communications technology is known to have been misused by a minority of teachers to send improper messages to a few students, because it is not supervised.
As for the social media, studies show that most people think that teachers should not have students as Facebook friends. Speaking about teacher-student use of social media, Charol Shakeshaft commented: “My concern is that it makes it very easy for teachers to form intimate and boundary-crossing relationships with students.” She is the chairwoman of the Department of Leadership of Virginia Commonwealth University and she has done research on sexual misconduct by teachers.
The third type of negative teacher-student relationship, in contrast, exists in situations where students are convinced, rightly or wrongly, that teachers do not care about them and have no interest in whether they pass or fail their examinations. Such students will not trust their teachers and may disengage from the subjects taught by these teachers or seek extra help elsewhere. They often become uncooperative in the classroom. Students respond much better when teachers show care and concern for them on a daily basis and treat them like real persons, within the accepted professional boundaries.
The fourth type of negative and improper teacher-student relationship emerges when teachers get involved in sexual relationships with students. If the student is a minor the teacher is guilty of a criminal act. This is usually called statutory rape. Such teachers are fired from their jobs and end up facing criminal charges in the law courts. If the student has reached the age of sexual consent, the teacher will, at the very least, be fired from the job for sexual misconduct and breach of professional ethics and trust. Only a small minority of teachers have been prosecuted for carrying on sexual relationships with students but the numbers seem to be growing. There have been lurid cases in several countries.
Teachers are in a position of great trust. Schools must do everything in their power to make sure that the teacher-student boundaries do not become blurred. Negative teacher-student relationships must be discouraged in the strongest possible way for the protection and well-being of students.