Pitfalls and Precautions is a series that aims to educate teachers on professional conduct issues by highlighting situations addressed by the ATA Professional Conduct Committee.
There are times when teachers and the families of the students they teach become friends outside of the school environment. Teachers may be the professional colleagues of the parents of their students. In smaller communities, there may be fewer social opportunities, and those that do exist may involve the parents of students. Teachers may hire students to babysit or to check in on pets. In these cases, teachers can end up in the homes of the students that they teach, and students can end up in their teachers’ homes. The vast majority of these situations are benign; however, there are occasions when boundaries get crossed.
One such case came up at a recent hearing of a professional conduct committee. In this matter, through school, coaching school teams and community coaching over several years, a teacher had become friends with the family of one of their students. The teacher was invited to the family home for meals, and the student would check in on the teacher’s pets when the teacher was away. The parents knew and trusted the teacher.
Nothing about the teacher’s interactions with the family raised any suspicions or doubts. This was apparent when the teacher offered to pay for the student to travel to Europe when the student graduated and turned 18. The parents encouraged the trip, knowing that the teacher, who was their trusted friend, would accompany the now former student on the trip to Europe.
During the trip, the teacher and the student each had their own accommodations. The student became ill during the trip and also felt homesick. Nevertheless, the parents encouraged the student to enjoy the travel experience. The teacher also contacted the student’s partner who, in turn, encouraged the student to remain on the trip. Ultimately, the student decided to return home, and the teacher facilitated and paid for the return travel. At no time during the trip was there any sexual contact between the teacher and the student.
By written submission at the hearing, the teacher admitted guilt on two charges and acknowledged that these actions placed the student, the family and school colleagues in an awkward and untenable situation. The hearing committee determined that it was inappropriate and unprofessional for the teacher to pay for and travel with the student on an unaccompanied overseas trip. Despite the student’s recent graduation, the teacher was responsible for maintaining a professional relationship and for recognizing how unaccompanied travel would be perceived by the school community. A power difference still existed between the student and the teacher, potentially causing the student to feel obligated to accept the teacher’s gift. Giving such an extravagant gift to a student goes beyond the boundaries of an acceptable teacher–student relationship, and parental approval did not absolve the teacher of their responsibilities. While there was no sexual relationship in this case, the optics of the situation provided opportunity for misinterpretation, which was harmful to the profession.
The committee found the teacher guilty on two charges and imposed a penalty of two severe letters of reprimand and fines totalling $6,000. The committee cited a number of reasons for the penalty. Because of the unequal relationship between the teacher and the student, the responsibility for maintaining proper boundaries rested solely with the teacher. Society expects teachers to be role models and holds them to a high standard of behaviour, so teachers must be mindful of how their conduct is perceived by the public.
The teacher in this case was experienced and should have been aware of the obligation to maintain an acceptable teacher–student relationship. Failing to maintain an appropriate relationship meant that the student felt awkward and was placed in a difficult situation. The profession will not tolerate teachers who exceed the boundaries of an acceptable teacher–student relationship. The penalty serves both as condemnation for the behaviour and as a deterrent for others who may consider similar behaviour. ❚