A Story Every Teacher and School Administrator Should Read

the-times-of-london-mastheadA couple of days ago, the Times of London published an op-ed by an anonymous female former teacher entitled “I Had an Affair with My 17-year-old Student.” The article, unfortunately, is behind the paper’s paywall, so it will only be accessible to those readers with a Times subscription or those who are willing to sign up for an inexpensive trial run. However, since the article so perfectly encapsules the issues about which I’ve written in Cybertraps for Educators and more recently here on this blog, I am going to summarize the salient points. I think the article should be handed out to every teaching certificate student, every graduate, and every practicing teacher — it is perfectly illustrative of the unique challenges (or cybertraps) that teachers face in the digital era.

It’s important to offer a couple of caveats. First, the story is anonymous and the names allegedly have been changed to protect those involved (and in particular, of course, the student). In this era of superficial anonymity, the reader has no way of adjudging the credibility or truthfulness of the writer. Second, this op-ed offers just one perspective: that of the disgraced teacher. The op-ed alludes to some of the consequences that flowed from her decision, but the immediacy and emotional impact of other voices — the student, the parents, the school community — are all missing. In that respect, this op-ed resembles the dubious decision of Dr. Phil to provide another predatory teacher a platform to offer her self-serving version of events prior to sentencing (a decision which proved to be ill-advised).

With those caveats in mind, let’s look at the key points of this former teacher’s story.

Beahvior of Millennials

The author of the op-ed said that when the relation occurred, she was 25 and her student was 17. The time period in which these events unfolded is not specified, but presumably it was sometime in the last two or three years. That puts both the teacher and the student squarely in the Millennial demographic, the population cohort consisting of people born between approximately 1983 and 2003.

As with all demographic groups, the precise boundaries are a subject of debate. What is not open to debate is that digital technology has reshaped the social and professional behavior of this generation: among other sobering statistics, recent surveys have found that fifty percent of millennials have sexted with someone, i.e., exchanged sexually explicit text messages or photos. In less than five years (by 2020), millennials will make up fifty percent of the workforce, which means that roughly one-half of a school district’s educators under the age of 35 have willingly (at least once) exchanged bytes depicting their private bits.

I posit that this trend will only accelerate among “Generation Z” or the “Boomlets,” as the youngsters born at the start of this century are known. Already, they are being exposed to unprecedented levels of sexual material at younger and younger ages, with predictable results. It is highly likely that school districts will face ongoing risks of boundary violations and sexual misconduct between educators and students in the decades to come. It will take a comprehensive program of frank discussions and ethical training for all concerned to keep the incidents to a minimum.

Emotional Vulnerability

In a significant number of the boundary violations I have studied over the past several years, the evidence makes it clear that one or both of the people involved is grappling with emotional issues that make him or her more vulnerable to advances or more prone to bad decisions. According to the author of this op-ed, both the adult and the child were struggling with difficult personal issues.

[“Tom”] later told me that his mum had been ill since he was very young, his dad wasn’t around and so he was practically raising his younger brother by himself. This showed in how he conducted himself.

One day in late October, I was crying before class. My first autumn term as a teacher was hell. It was so long, and so dark — literally and metaphorically. I didn’t see the sun for six months that year: I was up at 5am and didn’t leave school until 8pm most nights.

The tears, the author said, stemmed from “unfair” criticism by a superior, a work-compelled rejection of a wedding invitation from a close friend, the sorry state of her social life, and the collapse of a casual relationship caused by the demands of her first-year teaching responsibilities.

Her recitation underscores the very human impulse to seek solace wherever it may be found. In this case, based on the information available, mutual vulnerabilities and emotional stress helped fuel the relationship. In other common scenarios, a teacher’s natural empathetic tendencies towards a child in need can lead them from a quasi-counseling role to friendship to something more intense and much less appropriate. And of course, there are far too many examples of predatory adults sensing and purposely exploiting emotionally vulnerable children.

These various types of situations suggest that there may be some value to including some basic mental health information in teacher certification programs and in professional development for current teachers. It would be unreasonable to expect educators to become full-blown therapists or counselors, but every teacher could benefit from a better understanding of the factors that can lead to emotional vulnerability. It would be even more valuable if educators could more effectively recognize the warning signs of inappropriate relationships (in themselves and others) and have the confidence to alert a colleague or administrator.

The Role of Technology

Not surprisingly, technology played a role in virtually every aspect of this relationship. Here are some of the highlights:

  • After discovering his teacher crying, “Tom” sent his teacher a Facebook message that evening asking how she was feeling. “I could try to blame it on the wine I had been drinking, or being weak or whatever, but it felt like getting a message from a man who was attractive and whom you fancied a bit.” She and “Tom” messaged back and forth that evening for hours. [That messaging conversation, of course, could not have happened unless the two were “friends” on Facebook. This case illustrates one reason why educators should not accept “friend” requests from students.]
  • “Although the messaging didn’t go beyond platonic for a number of weeks, an invisible line had been crossed.”
  • As the relationship progressed, “Tom” and his teacher listed each other under pseudonyms on their cellphones. In a minimalistic effort to disguise the nature of their relationship, they described their time together as “gaming.”
  • When the boy’s mother grew suspicious of her son’s relationship with the author, she reviewed his various digital accounts and as the teacher put it, “found ample evidence” consisting of text and Facebook messages, emails, and other forms of communication.

There is no question, of course, that this relationship could have occurred without the use of technology; there are innumerable examples of technology-free but still inappropriate teacher-student relationships. At the same time, it also true that the myriad online communication tools available to the teacher and student these days made it far easier to pursue their relationship without stirring excessive suspicion (at least at first).

Intuition Can Trump Technology

While digital technology can facilitate the start and subsequent conduct of an illicit relationships, it rarely if ever prevents it from being discovered at some point. This case is a perfect illustration. As the teacher herself acknowledged, “It didn’t take long for the whispering to start, first among the students.” But her paramour successfully persuaded his friends that nothing was going on.

A good case can be made, however, that the strands that bind the members of a community are more sensitive to disruption and change than the fibers that compose the World Wide Web. During the six months of the relationship, the teacher said, “suspicions and rumors” circulated, and her supervisor issued a verbal warning about proper conduct with students.

Things did not completely fall apart, however, until the boy’s mother followed up on “that sixth sense that mothers” have. Notwithstanding her discomfort with technology and her reliance on her son for all things digital, the boy’s mother was able to conduct an investigation that made the nature and extent of her son’s relationship with his teacher perfectly clear. She immediately reported the relationship to school authorities.

Keeping It Quiet

One of the more disturbing aspects of this case is the response of the school. Here is the teacher’s description of the fall-out from the discovery of her relationship with “Tom”:

In fairness to the school and to Tom’s mum, they were as reasonable as I could have possibly hoped. They desperately wanted to keep a lid on it, both to conceal it from the press and from the other students and parents.

No report was made to the police or to the teacher’s licensing authority. Instead, the school demanded that she resign immediately and sever all contact from “Tom.” The school told her that a “black mark” would be entered against her name, but without any public reprimand or licensure proceeding, there is no way to know for sure that her misconduct would be reported to future employers.

In my opinion, schools have an obligation to publicly report incidents such as this. If we take the facts as stated to be true, an argument can be made that the relationship was a one-off event, and the teacher would not be likely to enter into a relationship with another student. It also seems likely that the student would not have been willing to cooperate with a criminal prosecution (although victim cooperation is not completely necessary). But by sweeping this case under the rug, the school unilaterally deprived the profession of a teachable moment that could be used effectively to instruct other educators about the warning signs of emotional vulnerability and the seductive power of electronic communications. More importantly, the school increased the odds (however unlikely) that an unsuspecting school district might hire the teacher at some point in the future.

Let’s be clear: I believe strongly in rehabilitation, reformation, and redemption, and given the particular circumstances of this case, it might be that a chastened teacher could return to the classroom. Our primary goal, however, should be to make sure that such incidents occur as infrequently as possible, and ongoing education (including cautionary tales) is an important part of achieving that objective. Administrators who cover up incidents of educator misconduct are doing their communities and their profession no favors, and should be sanctioned accordingly.

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