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Unit 3: The Teacher/Student Relationship

In Pennsylvania, school attendance is compulsory and thus parents are mandated to entrust their children to our education system.  As a result of this mandate, “trust” has evolved into the operative foundation of the relationship of students with their teachers.  It is from this foundation that the duty of teachers to act as a fiduciary in their students' best interest and to create and maintain a safe environment for their students derives. As codified in the Code of Professional Practice and Conduct for Educators, which states in Section 4, Article 10 that:

"Professional educators shall exert reasonable effort to protect the student from conditions which interfere with learning or are harmful to the student's health and safety."

The overwhelming majority of educators in Pennsylvania exercise their fiduciary responsibilities with care and conviction.  The few who breach their duties, however, undermine the profession and leave a trail of devastation, particularly with student victims.  Approximately 60-70% of the PSPC’s cases each year involve some type of sexual misconduct, including criminal convictions for sexual offenses, boundary violations with students, and misuse of school equipment such as computers to access sexually explicit materials.

For purposes of professional discipline, the PSPC interprets the term “sexual misconduct” very broadly. Thus, in addition to criminal offenses where the victim may or may not be a student, the PSPC considers sexual misconduct to include any act or conduct directed towards or with a child or a student of a romantic or sexual nature regardless of the age of the child or student, including any sexual, romantic or erotic contact with the child or student as well as any verbal, non-verbal, written or electronic communication or physical activity designed to establish a romantic or sexual relationship, including but not limited to:
a. sexual or romantic invitations;
b. dating or soliciting dates;
c. engaging in sexualized dialogue;
d. making suggestive comments;
e. exposure;
f. self-disclosure of a sexual or erotic nature; and
g. exchange of gifts with no educational purpose.

The conduct described above is often referred to as “grooming”. It has been our experience that when a teacher enters into an inappropriate relationship with a student, the teacher violates the recognized student-teacher boundary and thereby redefines the boundary inappropriately.  While some teachers intentionally groom a student for the purpose of engaging in sexual misconduct, others fall prey to the “slippery slope” of misconduct. For example, the teacher-student relationship may initially be appropriate, but at some point the relationship shifts to serving the needs of the teacher and not the needs of the student. There may be an increase in the frequency of interaction as well as  an increased level of intimacy, which ultimately may lead to a sexual relationship. In many cases, the teacher takes on a new role with a student, which causes the traditional relationship to become blurred.  When teachers become confidants, friends or counselors of students, a dual relationship is created which creates an ambiguity in the student-teacher relationship where roles are less defined. This ambiguity helps to foster inappropriate actions and educator misconduct.

For new teachers, this ambiguity can sometimes be difficult to recognize.  In some cases, a new teacher may be just a few years older than the students and may mistakenly view the them as peers.  They may share common interests, the same musical tastes, and possibly even an overlapping circle of friends.  Moreover, because of the demanding nature of the first years of teaching, a new teacher may spend less time with his or her family and may begin seek students as a support system.  

In addition, teachers also bring their own unique vulnerabilities to work.  Teachers who are experiencing difficulties in their personal lives or are socially or emotionally immature may be particularly susceptible to the “slippery slope”.  The attention, admiration and sometimes adoration bestowed by students on a teacher can be overwhelming, particularly when a teacher is emotionally vulnerable.  While there is no single profile of an offender, typical vulnerabilities include viewing students as peers, suffering from adult relationship issues, immaturity, need for attention, a sense of invulnerability, absence of a developed personal moral compass and lack of personal crisis management skills.  Learning to recognize one’s own vulnerabilities is the first step in avoiding misconduct with students.  Every decision made by a teacher with respect to his or her students should be prefaced with the question: “Whose needs are being met by my course of action?”  There can only be one acceptable answer to this question ---- the needs of the student!  Betraying the trust of students, parents, the profession and the community is never acceptable. 

It is incumbent on all teachers to safeguard the well-being of their students from dangers inside and outside of school.  Teachers must not only zealously guard against putting their needs before their students, but must also work to ensure that their colleagues conform to the appropriate standard of ethical practice as well. The employment and certification repercussions for engaging in sexual misconduct or inappropriate relationships with students are grave. Teachers who ignore their responsibilities can be assured that their conduct will trigger discipline which in all likelihood will include the loss of employment and the suspension and/or revocation of their certification.

Suggested Readings

Myers, K (2005). Teachers Behaving Badly.  New York: RoutledgeFarmer.

Fibkins, W. L. (2006)  Innocence Denied:  A Guide to Preventing Sexual Misconduct by Teachers and Coaches.  Lanham, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield Education.