Should teachers date students?

A controversy burst open recently in a dance school in Winnipeg because of an allegedly consensual relationship between a 37-year-old teacher and an 18-year-old dance student. This is not a rare case and newspapers and television have reported other cases of relationship between teachers and students that have raised many eyebrows. This is one kind of relationship that our society frowns upon much the same way it condemns child abuse or paedophilia.

A teacher-student relationship is by tradition, considered sacred. The teacher is guiding the child on the way to a moral and virtuous life. He must not send wrong signals by converting this delicate relationship into a romantic one. Students are immature and overwhelmed by their teacher’s personality, they look up to the teacher with admiration; so it is highly immoral to take advantage of these innocent feelings and deepen it to an adult romance.

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The main fault in a teacher-student relationship is the lopsided power equations. The teacher occupies an influential position. The student is too immature to make a proper decision for himself/herself. There is no question of a consensual relationship between a teacher and a student. The power difference makes them unequal. It exploits the emotional vulnerability of the student and vitiates the atmosphere of the class.

Such a romantic dalliance has adverse effects on classroom dynamics. Other students suspect favoritism and awarding higher grades to the student involved with the teacher. They may attribute the wrong motives and may see an undesirable nexus between awarding grades and sexual favors. The whole environment gets spoilt.

Allowing mentorship to turn into romance breaks the trust on which a healthy student-teacher relationship is founded. Most educational institutions have a policy that bans such romances. This is because not only is it socially repulsive but also it could expose the school to allegations of negligence and possible lawsuits.

The degree to which the teacher-student romance is abhorred depends usually on the age difference between the two. A primary school teacher who is involved in a sexual relationship with one of her wards will elicit the most outrage and is prosecuted as a criminal. High school teachers who sleep with their students are likely to be called "slimy" or "irresponsible" rather than sick or evil. College teachers who have affairs with undergraduate students are likely to be called unprofessional or careless and graduate schools dismiss such affairs as college gossip.

Some also argue that teacher-student romances are unethical because it involves bringing something alien namely love and passion, to the scene of education, thus distracting from and posing as an impediment to educational goals. Education is pursued for a love for knowledge and a thirst for discovery. Romance has no place there.

A teacher is a facilitator as a student learns to react to and love different things in the world. He must help the child in the pursuit and love of knowledge and not make himself the destination. To make oneself the destination of a child’s love is to fail to grasp something central to teaching.

Sometimes you have the odd case when a student misconstrues the intentions of a loving teacher. Some children crave attention and affection. In this case, the teacher is not to blame but it is the student who needs counseling. Students are constantly sending messages in the direction of the teacher, from their unconscious behaviour, in their way of taking up work of the class, and in their explicit coomunications. Experts say that teachers should not respond to all these signals.

There is nothing wrong in having a close, friendly, healthy relationship with your teacher. But sexual relationships are totally wrong. The teacher will risk his reputation and even face legal charges and be prosecuted. He will lose his job and future. Nabokov’s Lolita makes for a good story but does not make for a happy life in reality.

Some peers, who are teachers and students by circumstance, can be involved romantically without offending anyone. This includes a girl attending evening classes run by a classmate who has moved ahead in life. In literature, Pygmalion’s Eliza Dolittle is also tolerated as a student who fell in love with her professor Higgins.

Student–teacher romances are still an oddity and lie on the fringe of acceptability of our society. While some movies idolize such relationships, generally such themes do not find favor with society as a whole and provoke harsh criticism by influential sections such as the media. Any school that glosses over unhealthy emotional entanglement between a teacher and student would also be subject to wholesale condemnation and avoidance by the public, especially by parents.

Ancient civilizations like India attach great importance to the student-teacher relationship, which has been traditionally idolized. The teacher has been assigned a position of eminence next only to God and the student was always encouraged to stay with the teacher throughout the period of his education. Unethical relationships between the teacher and the student would have been unthinkable in such a cultural environment. While modern conditions do not admit such arrangements, the sentiment still remains intact and is deeply rooted in the popular psyche.

The issue of teacher-student dating remains highly sensitive and controversial and provokes a lot of strong sentiments in a lot of people.