Nearby Permian High School in Odessa, Texas is finally being known for something besides Friday Night Lights: According to national news sites like NBC and CNN, the school has been garnering a reputation as "Predator High" for its high number of faculty and staff accused of having inappropriate relationships with students. The Odessa-American reports that this is the fifth teacher in one year to have been fired for such inappropriate relationships. A sixth staffer had been accused but an investigation found the accusation to be unfounded.
Across the way in Midland, we are not immune to such scandals by any stretch: Within the past few years two social studies teachers at my own high school have left their jobs or been terminated after being accused of inappropriate relationships with minor students.
While "Predator High" jokes make the rounds among my classrooms of seniors, it is us teachers who must take a lesson. Many young teachers, such as the young women in their twenties who were accused of having affairs with students at Permian, may not know how to keep a professional distance from the teens they teach. Perhaps it's a changing culture, perhaps it's Facebook and Twitter, perhaps it's increased demands on educators to try and "connect" with students...but it comes with some serious drawbacks.
As a high school teacher, I feel that changing technology and demands to increase communication with students and parents might be one factor leading to boundaries being crossed between teacher and student. Nowadays, teachers e-mail students directly and post class information and notes online. When students don't do their work, teachers are expected to e-mail them the assignments and notes. Going further, some teachers might friend students on Facebook as part of a class Facebook page. Over time, e-mail communication and Facebook posts and messages might become something more.
In olden times, things were simpler: When you were outside the classroom there was little or no teacher-student communication.
While teachers and schools cannot control the prevailing culture, which tends to involve a decreasing of formality between supervisors and their charges, they can protect educators by reducing the demands to connect outside the classroom with students. Students have ample opportunity to complete their work at school - it should not be demanded that teachers go so far to bond with students and send them everything via e-mail. A healthy distance should be maintained.
I do not have a classroom Facebook page, nor will I connect with students via social media.
Schools should also enforce strict dress codes for teachers. One factor that may dangerously reduce the formal relationship between older teenager and young adult is lack of formal wear for teachers. I always wear business casual in the classroom, meaning at least slacks, loafers, and a collared shirt. Young teachers who wear t-shirts, form-fitting clothing, and flip-flops or sneakers may risk being taken less seriously by their students...and perhaps seen as equals rather than educators. This opens the door to possible flirtation when students feel a little too comfortable with the teacher.
In the classroom, students need to know that the teacher is an adult, a paid professional, and is dressing the part.
Finally, I cringe at the widely-mentioned notion that teachers should "love" their students and "love" teaching. I do love teaching, but not the gushy kind of love. It is a labor of love. I view my students as young adults who need to be challenged and held to high standards, not children to be doted on. Some teachers may fall prey to eventual flirtation by giving in to the stereotype that teachers should have gushy love for teaching and students and treat their teenage pupils like children. The idea that the teacher should always go "above and beyond" to help each student may result in too much time being spent outside of class helping the student...leading to something inappropriate.
Teachers, take a step back and maintain your distance. This also helps ease stress during these final weeks of school when teens are so dadgum needy! No, we should not be obligated to call your house to report every time you score less than a 70. No, we should not be required to e-mail you everything. No, we should not be expected to always be available before school, during lunch, and after school. We should be obligated to dress formally. We should be obligated to treat you like young adults.