Maintaining professional boundaries is critical within the teacher/student relationship. While connecting with one’s students and building a rapport is an important component of teaching, an educator must adhere to appropriate standards of conduct with students at all times, both on and off campus. It is imperative that teachers and educators establish and preserve professional boundaries to protect themselves both legally and professionally.
Consider the following fictionalized vignette:
Ima Teacher is a middle school teacher in California. She is also the coach for an All-County basketball team. Ura Student is 13 years old and a student in Ima’s classroom. Ima has a dual relationship with Ura because Ura is also on Ima’s basketball team. Ura reminds Ima of herself at that age. Ima’s parents divorced when Ima was 13 years old, and Ura’s parents are currently going through an ugly divorce. Today is the championship basketball game. Ura recently did poorly on an exam in Ima’s class, and Ima hopes that today’s game will lift Ura’s spirits. Ura misses a shot in the final few seconds of the game, and they lose the game. Ura is devastated. Ima tries to boost the morale of the team with some post-game pizza and pep talks. Later, as Ima is getting into her car to leave, Ura climbs into Ima’s passenger seat. Ura asks Ima to drive her home since she forgot her money for the bus. Ura starts sobbing, saying that she caused them to lose the game just like she caused her parents to divorce. Ima feels terribly for Ura and wants to hug her and give her advice. What professional boundaries is Ima at risk of violating? How should Ima proceed?
The above example underlines the complexities of maintaining proper boundaries as a teacher or educator.
What is a professional boundary?
Professional boundaries define appropriate standards of behavior between professionals and the public. Power imbalances often exist within a professional relationship, and boundaries serve to protect both the public and professional.
The teacher/student relationship is inherently unequal. A teacher holds a unique position of authority. While connecting with one’s students and building a rapport is an essential component of teaching, the teacher/student relationship must be developed without crossing professional and/or legal boundaries. A teacher must maintain appropriate standards of conduct with students at all times, both on and off campus.
What is a boundary violation?
A boundary violation involves any behavior or interaction which causes harm to the professional or public.
The teacher/student relationship involves trust and respect. If this trust or respect is exploited or abused, through either sexual or non-sexual misconduct, a boundary violation has occurred.
What are common boundary violations between educators and students?
• Technology violations: Communicating with students on social media that is not approved by the school, posting inappropriate or sexually explicit content on one’s personal social media.
• Emotional violations: Showing favoritism toward a student, mismanaging feelings of frustration toward a student, failing to recognize that a teacher is not a peer, parent, therapist, or friend.
• Physical violations: Inappropriate physical contact between teacher and student such as a long hug behind closed office doors.
• Relationship violations: Engaging in a romantic or sexual relationship with a current or former student, flirting with a student, grooming behaviors, going to a student’s home without a parent, inviting a student to the teacher’s home without a parent, driving a student in the teacher’s vehicle.
• Power violations: Using a student’s personal connections for personal gain, abusing a teacher’s position of authority to harm or exploit a student, using the teacher/student relationship to reward/punish a student.
• Financial violations: Teachers overspending their own money for their classroom, loaning money to a student, asking a student for money.
• Communication violations: Talking with a student about inappropriate subject matters, sharing personal information with a student that does not benefit the student’s well-being, asking a student personal/sexual questions, failing to refer a student to a counselor as needed.
While many of the above examples are clear boundary violations, others are not so clear cut and may begin with a teacher’s best intentions. Consider a teacher who buys lunch for a student who forgot his money, a teacher who innocently accepts a student’s Facebook friend request, or a teacher who gives a hug to a crying student in a closed office vs a teacher giving a student a high-five in the classroom in front of others. Teachers must learn to recognize potential boundary breaches and should regularly consult with their principal or supervisor to minimize the risk of boundary violations.
How does a teacher maintain appropriate professional boundaries?
Teachers and educators have a unique position of authority, trust, and influence. All behaviors and interactions between a teacher and student should prioritize the well-being of students. A teacher’s focus should be on meeting the needs of the student rather than their own needs. Teachers must be vigilant in considering the implications or consequences of their behavior.
Examples of teachers at risk for boundary violations:
• New teachers: Potential boundary violations may be more difficult to recognize for those newer to the profession. Newer teachers and educators should regularly consult with their principal or supervisor to minimize the risk of boundary violations.
• Similarly-aged teachers/students: Teachers of similar age to students can mistakenly develop a peer relationship based on common interests or hobbies. Teachers and students are not peers, and a teacher of similar age must be mindful of the potential for boundary violations.
• Small towns or rural settings: Teachers who work in a small town may see their students frequently outside of the classroom. Teachers should devise a plan as to how such encounters will be handled in order to minimize potential boundary issues.
• Dual relationships: Some teachers may hold dual relationships with students. A teacher may also be a student’s coach. A teacher’s child may be close friends with one of the teacher’s students. Dual relationships can be messy, and vigilance is required to avoid boundary violations.
• Teacher’s social/emotional health: Teachers who are undergoing difficult personal circumstances such as grief, loss, divorce, parenting challenges, or mental health issues can be at greater risk for blurred boundaries.
Questions teachers should ask themselves:
• Do I treat any particular student differently than other students?
• What is my social media policy related to my students?
• Do I have any inappropriate content on my personal social media accounts?
• Would I behave differently with my student if I was in the presence of my supervisor or the student’s parent?
• Do I dress or act differently when I know that I will see a particular student?
• Has a colleague ever questioned my behavior toward a student?
• Would I have concern about another teacher behaving as I do?
• Do I ever put my own well-being above that of my students?
• Am I currently having any personal difficulties that could affect my professional judgement?
• Do I regularly consult with my principal or supervisor about potential boundary risks?
• Am I following the standards of conduct expected by my licensing board?
If you are a teacher or educator facing disciplinary action, it is imperative to enlist the assistance of an experienced licensing attorney at the earliest stage of the disciplinary process. The Law Offices of Lucy S. McAllister are here to help. We understand the unique legal complexities facing teachers and educators. We have the knowledge and experience to craft a comprehensive strategy and are dedicated to navigating your specific case through the disciplinary process to best defend your professional interests.
The Law Offices of Lucy S. McAllister have successfully represented a wide range of California licensed professionals including educators and teachers. We are experienced in handling all types of licensing issues. Let us help you protect your professional license, your reputation, and your livelihood.
For additional information or to schedule a consultation on a professional licensing issue, please contact us today at (877) 280-9944.
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