The Soapbox: Trying To Understand All These Teacher/Student Affairs

Nearly every day, as I comb through my soon-to-be-extinct Google Reader RSS feed, I come across a story about a teacher having an affair with one of their high school students. It’s practically commonplace news at this point. Today, I read about a 32-year-old science teacher in the Bronx who was impregnated by her 17-year-old student. Felicia Barahona, an Afghanistan War vet, was accused of having a four-month affair with the teenage boy, allegedly forcing him to have unprotected sex with her and dumping him shortly after she conceived. Sometimes these crazy teacher scandals don’t involve an outright student/teacher affair, but rather the blurring of sexual boundaries. Such was the case with Carly McKinney, who was suspended from a high school in Colorado back in January for posting a whole mess of inappropriate pictures on Twitter, some of which featured her in nothing but thong underwear.

As a former high school teacher, my first instinct is usually to scream What the fuck!? The Counter Pedophilia Investigative Unit (CPIU) estimates that 15 percent of students will be sexually abused by a member of the school staff in their school career and that between 1 and 5 percent of these abusers and harassers will be teachers. These statistics are staggering. When you become a teacher you take an unspoken oath to guard and protect. How is this reprehensible violation of power even possible? And how can we make it stop? I’ve found myself reflecting the why and how of it all quite a bit. In order to even begin to comprehend, I think first we must understand the context in which an increasing number of student/teacher scandals are occurring.

Just to give you a quick background on my teaching career, at the age of 23, I was hired to direct “The Fantasticks” at a private high school in East Los Angeles. I was two years out of college, floundering in my acting career, when I met one of the school’s teachers at a dinner party, and she told me about the job. Within a year of directing my first play, I had taken the California Basic Educational Skills Test (CBEST) and was hired to teach Theater at the school full time. I blinked, it felt like, and suddenly I was a teacher.

Although the ease with which I landed a teaching job may sound unusual, it’s not, according to a study done by the the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) in 2011. They estimated that 300,000 veteran teachers retired between 2004 and 2008 leaving US schools with more than 1.6 million openings to fill. These jobs were primarily filled with new teachers, with no experience, straight out of college. NCTAF predicted that nearly 50 percent of new teachers would leave the profession within five years due to being ill-prepared for the responsibility, overworked and underpaid. This was all true for me. I was burnt out and overwhelmed by year four.

You see, high school campuses are like a tiny microcosms where you are isolated from the real world for hours on end. Many days, I would go 12 hours without having a single conversation with a person over the age of 17. If something of note happened in the world, like, say, a new Pope was selected, I would have no idea until I got home that evening. Students weren’t allowed to use cell phones, so by way of example, I usually left mine off and put away. There was no computer in my classroom. Spending hours a day in this type of sequestered environment can start to make you lose touch with reality. Daily goings on take on a heightened importance. Your perspective can start to fade away.

You co-exist with your students in a pressure cooker of power struggles, hormones, emotions and rules, that it feels like it could combust at any moment. As a young teacher, I put a lot of pressure on myself to be responsible, to be a role model, to be an exemplary person — especially since I was so close in age with my students. Yet the irony was that I was only playing at being an adult. It’s was a paradox. Being responsible for helping to shape identities before yours is fully formed leaves so much room for error.

I taught Theater, so by nature of my subject, there was a lot of creative exploration. Perhaps it allowed my students to be more emotionally open than they would in say, Social Studies. I gave them assignments that required them to confront their lives and hopefully have an outlet to express their deepest feelings through art. At least, that’s what I thought I would accomplish when I started. I thought energy would flow one way — from me to them.

What I didn’t bargain for was how attached I would become to my students, how much they would affect me. I was ill-prepared to hear all the personal/tragic/gut-wrenching stories my students would reveal to me. I knew that the protocol was to report these things to the school counselor, but it wasn’t that simple. My students’ stories would keep me awake many nights, thinking about the incidences of physical abuse, eating disorders and more. If I wasn’t thinking about that, I would stare at the ceiling into the wee hours fixating on how to get a particular student to college when she had no support at home and no funds. If not that, my idle thoughts would be preoccupied with simply trying to understand my students. Why was so-and-so acting so snappish in 8th period? Drugs? Hormones? Problems at home? Depression? My mind was consumed with my students. I experienced just a taste of what it must feel like to be a parent. I felt the intense love, the selflessness, often the helplessness. I knew what it was like to care about another human being more than yourself. There were certain students I thought of as my kids. I don’t mean I literally thought they were my kids, but I felt it was my responsibility to guide, protect and shepherd them through the world, or at least the eight hours we spent together each day.

All of this is to say, that the intimacy inherent in the student/teacher relationship is confusing and complex. Healthy individuals figure out how to navigate this intimacy. Unhealthy individuals can transmogrify this feeling into one of sexual intimacy. When I say unhealthy individuals, I am talking about people who don’t understand the difference between an appropriate and inappropriate interaction with a student. The school I worked at put procedures in place to try to make student/teacher relationships less confusing. We were not allowed to connect with our students on any social media outlets. If we were in a room with a student alone, we were instructed to leave the door open. We were discouraged from having personal relationships with our students outside of class — although what that meant was never specified. The nature of the student/teacher relationship is personal and essential to the learning process, so that directive is murky at best. Even with these rules, I was left, for the most part, to my own moral and ethical constitution to determine how to conduct myself. Luckily, my identity was intact enough that I had a clear sense of what was too personal. For instance, helping a student over the phone with a college essay the night before it was due was something I considered appropriate. Talking on the phone to a student about their personal life I considered wildly inappropriate. But still, these judgement calls are so grey.

So this leads me to how? How can schools reduce the alarming regularity of teacher scandals? Even though I know I never would have crossed the lines of appropriateness with one of my students, I think all teachers — especially the young ones– could benefit from much more extensive training in the area of student/teacher relationships. What to do when a student flirts with you? What to say when they tell you they’ve been sexually abused by their stepfather? How do you make your Twitter feed private? Not just loose guidelines, but actual specifics on how to navigate these gray areas appropriately. Because ultimately, if the power of this intimacy is harnessed and channeled appropriately, it has the potential to be life-changing for both the student and the teacher.