Boundaries Blurred: The Modern Classroom

Social Media and the distortion of professional/personal boundary lines in the school environment

The relationship between secondary teachers and their students is particularly vulnerable in this age where social media is generally embraced, where the casual and the cool reign, where sex sells, and the social cohesion of communities is fractured. The environment created by these dynamics is one where the boundaries are not clearly understood. For teachers, their careers and their families can be jeopardized by one misstep. For students enmeshed in an inappropriate relationship with a teacher, their innocence and trust in authority is undermined, sometimes irreparably. All the players in this unfortunate drama are hurt. These inappropriate relationships are far more common than the general public is aware of. Fortunately there are proactive measures and guidelines that can be introduced for the benefit and protection of all.

The crossing of professional and personal boundaries is always the cause for any inappropriate relationship between a teacher and student. No matter how innocent the initial intention, once the line is violated, it has the potential to create immeasurable heartache and loss. Presently there are few professional discussions addressing the boundaries which need to be maintained by classroom teachers. Practical concrete guidelines and examples are necessary to assist administrators, teachers, and coaches in assuring a safer educational environment for all concerned.

Consistent ethical behaviour in teachers garners the trust and respect of their students and fellow staff members. Before a teacher can cultivate this professional reputation, they must first be given clear guidelines during their training, and eventually in refresher courses by their administration. The essential character of the teacher is foundational, but having an awareness of the possible pitfalls and the proactive tools to respond appropriately are essential in today’s fast paced culture and high pressure classrooms. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

On January 30th, 2012, the National Post published an article about Joanne Leger-Legault, an award winning Ottawa teacher who was accused of having sexual contact with several of her male students. Leger-Legault was eventually stripped of her teaching permit and fired by the city’s school board. She pleaded no contest to the allegations filed against her of professional misconduct, nor did she dispute the facts that were presented to the discipline committee at the Ontario College of Teachers, where her case was heard last year. Leger-Legault admitted to violating student/teacher boundaries when she engaged in inappropriate sexual relationships with the male students whom she taught. This shocking story of the betrayal of a position of trust and authority by a teacher is extreme, but it serves as a warning of the dangers inherent in teaching adolescents without a clear understanding of professional and personal boundaries. That Leger-Legault failed to maintain the standards of her profession is an understatement.

Occasionally the teacher is also a sexual predator. According to Charol Shakeshaft, professor and co-author of a four-year study of school sexual abuse that appeared in Phi Delta Kappan, an education journal, “sex between teachers and students is much more common than people are willing to acknowledge.” She found that “the most accurate data available at this time indicates that nearly 9.6 percent of students are targets of educator sexual misconduct sometime during their school career.” Although this study took place in the United States, there is no reason to assume that this does not occur in Canada. It should be a wakeup call to all school administrators and teachers to not only be vigilant, but to also make it a regular in-service subject for discussion. Shakeshaft recommends that a professional in the field of sexual abuse be hired for such in-services. Ideally they would be drawn from outside the school community.

Teachers who violate boundaries in such an egregious manner fail to understand the ethical boundaries that are essential when guiding students through the process of developing their full potential. Respect for a student is multifaceted, and includes integrity, fairmindedness, and moral reliability. Student teachers in particular must learn how to appropriately express their concern for the students. An educator’s relationship with students, parents, colleagues, and the public in general are by necessity based on a foundation of trust.

Pitfalls such as engaging with students on social media can happen in a moment and ensnare the most caring of teachers. Secondary educators especially need professional development that will assist them in their decision making, and help them to avoid mistakes in their relationships with their students. Professional development that tackles these issues and includes examples, information, and strategies is essential for all teachers.

When communicating with students online, the boundary between the personal and the professional is easily blurred. Social media is often the flashpoint where teacher/student relationships can easily slip across professional boundaries. Inappropriate behaviour by teachers can range from comments about the administration to posting personal videos online. Experienced teachers avoid friending students on Facebook or handing out their personal e-mail address. They understand the dangers inherent in communicating with their students online and the difficulty it poses in maintaining clear boundaries. The moment their personal information or photos are posted online the teacher has lost control of the material. It can in turn be shared and copied by immature and thoughtless students. The damage is potentially irreparable.

Relationships develop faster when access to and communication between people is instantaneous. The internet and social media all contribute to a false and, many times, dangerous intimacy. Secrets are easily shared with virtual strangers and the media is saturated with cases of inappropriate relationships that have developed online. Stories of predators luring teens into destructive relationships online under the cloak of anonymity are commonplace and have occasionally led to youth suicide. In the context of social media, people routinely become ensnared. The establishment of boundaries regarding communication technologies is critical for success in today’s classroom and teachers are best served if they understand the danger of participating with students on social media.

Adolescent boys and girls sometimes develop crushes on their teachers and when this occurs they often try to connect with them through social media. These actions can catch a teacher unaware. An experienced and well trained teacher can grasp the intent of these messages and put a firm stop to their progression. Moving expeditiously to the establishment of clear and practical boundaries in every school environment protects students, families, and careers from the emotional and legal consequences of inappropriate relationships.

The freedom that many students enjoy with their smart phones, even in the classroom, has given rise to unforeseen problems. The more obvious consequences are inattention and unwanted communication between students during class. The ubiquitous cell phone has also led, for example, to embarrassing photos taken of a teacher bending over and of videos shot of students caught in awkward situations. These photos and videos are then shared online to the humiliation of many. School boards, parents, and administration are often politically constrained from restricting cell phone use in schools.

An interview with a Winnipeg school guidance counsellor whose career has spanned several decades, exposed the lack of preparation she received on the issue of maintaining clear boundaries.

  1. Were professional and interpersonal sexual boundaries with adolescents and their teachers ever discussed in your training at university?

“…this was NEVER discussed. The system needs to be reviewed on this issue.”

  • Where these sensitive issues ever discussed during your practicum at your first school?

“Again, this was never addressed.”

  • As a guidance counsellor, have you ever encountered sexual violations between a student and teacher? Can you share a bit about the nature of the violation and the outcome for all concerned?

“…the teacher was eventually let go and moved on. It was only through the local newspaper that we as a staff became aware that this teacher was formally charged with sexual interference in a Winnipeg school….”

  • Are boundaries, including sexual boundaries, an issue that is regularly addressed at teacher in-services?

“Once again I cannot recall any specific training or a presentation in regards to this issue, and I have taught at the high school and elementary level.”

The Ontario College of Teachers Professional Advisory recommends that teachers refrain from exchanging personal notes, comments, or e-mails with students, as well as making phone calls to them. More crucially, teachers should never engage in flirtation or sexual dialogue with students either in school or on the internet. They also recommend declining “friend” requests from students. Electronic communication should only occur at appropriate times of the day and through established educational platforms such as a school program or project. As digital citizens, teachers are encouraged to model professional behaviour and language online. Securing personal online accounts is also considered advisable. These recommendations are not intended to promote fear, but rather to liberate educators to perform confidently in their classrooms, knowing that their relationships with their students are safely within professional boundaries.

Reflection and self-examination of one’s own teaching style can go a long way to avoiding false allegations. Many of these allegations arise from a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of a teacher’s intent. Those who teach youth are expected to maintain a higher standard of care and conduct than general members of society. These standards are expected year round. Even a teacher’s after school behaviour is often scrutinized. The following are some guideposts that can help instructors maintain a healthy balance in their relationships with students: Avoid being particularly close to one student. Teachers are role models, not best friends. Never meet a student outside of school or drive them in your personal vehicle. Do not mix socially with teens, especially when alcohol is involved. Dating students, even adult students, is off limits. Avoid being alone with a student, as well as physical expressions of concern. Some students need more attention and are dealing with serious issues at home. Learn what resources are available for these students, such as a guidance or addiction counsellor. The student is likely to receive more help from a team of professionals. Reflect before giving a student a gift. The most valued gift you can give them is to be the best teacher you know how to be.

Many secondary teachers struggle with the “new chumminess,” between staff and students in schools. The general culture of informality was not present just a generation ago and it has contributed to the blurring of these all important boundaries. In the present culture of casual mores and greater accessibility, these essential boundaries are being eroded. Teachers must continually ask themselves, if a third party was observing me, would this behaviour be open to misinterpretation? It is the responsibility of the education departments at universities and school administrators to inoculate teachers against the potential pitfalls in these critical relationships.

By: Alison Zenisek