Teacher, don’t stand so close to me

Published: November 13, 2011
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We’ve all done it when we were awkward and fourteen. The teacher was probably not even young or good looking.  But we did it for approval, for love, for a better grade, to be admired.  A student of mine alerted me to an interested phenomenon recently. There was this girl who was most sober in my class, did her work, took copious notes, wrote at college level, her glasses high on her nose, she looked like she had just stepped out of Hajj.  

My student told me in reference to her:

“You should see her in the Eco teacher’s class. She is so hyper; you have to pull her down from the top of desks. She can’t shut up with the “sir, sir, sir, sir…but sir when is our treat?”

Why do girls act cute around older men?

I doubt they just want to be fed pizza because they need the calories. Usually the flirting is more heavily between female students and male teachers. Of course some young women teachers may become fantasy figures. But most female teachers, at least the older ones, are more like mother figures to be feared, revered, lied to; they are distant and seem to regard the youth with suspicion.

How does this flirting happen?

Do the girls notice the teacher’s propensity and try to capitalize on it because they want to get better grades, or are they insecure and need validation? Is it important to allow such dynamics to develop because there is emotional growth in every experience. As long as girls are shielded from overt abuse, this is a chance for them to learn how relationships work, explore their own longings and desires, however risky, for an attractive teacher, and be able to access them in a more engaged manner. The problem with that theory is that most such relationships always carry the danger of turning predatory.

A few months ago, I heard the story of a certain teacher at one of the DHA schools who has come close to sexually harassing female high school students. He advises his colleagues to do the same and treats it like a job perk. But even if they are not predatory per sethe teacher is usually more confident, smarter, has figured more in life, has definite desires, and is using the young person in the process to impress them with a certain ideology, or educate and dominate them in some other way. Also, he’s at this gig every year on repeat mode. How jaded does it get in ten years?

Students, on the other hand, have not studied politics and are not yet able to reference their experiences within a feminist framework. Years from now some of the girls may question memories and encounters even if they were willing and enthusiastic participants, and realise that their teachers were unnecessarily reciprocative to flirtatious overtures from them. Some may feel taken advantage of and carry with them shame, and guilt for appearing coy and being vulnerable. I can totally imagine Kangna Ranaut playing the grown up distraught and distorted version. Some, of course, may think the whole thing was hilarious, and dismiss the teacher as pathetic, and feel empowered. Think Samantha from Sex and the City.  It’s not that uncomplicated.

I remember we once had a recent college graduate come and teach us maths and all the girls had crushes on him. He once asked me, amidst all the bubbling hormones in the physics class, to sit next to him. He was perched on a steel desk, and he went ‘pat pat pat’ at the spot smack next to him. I know I did not learn anything about anodes and cathodes – but it was an elevating, edifying moment. Did he not know? Did he know and was this a conscious and manipulative act? In hindsight, definitely the latter.

I once asked an even older male teacher what his first name was. Now, if I had a teen aged daughter who did the same, I would be mortified and provide her with life affirming lessons. And the teacher thinking, all of 45, smiled back and entertained the query even though it was, at the time, not the road to go on. I did not feel exploited, and the situation needn’t be at least not in the immediate sense. But how should a teacher respond if he (or she) is wholesome, compassionate, and has good gender politics?

Discourage without disparaging,  maintain a distance without being mean, disallow boundaries from being transgressed inappropriately, check in class if anyone is feeling uncomfortable, transform flirtatious moments into teachable ones, and generally not make a big deal out of much.

What if the age gap is less troubling – a 20-year-old college student and a 30-year-old teacher? A 24-year-old student and a 50-year-old professor? A story that circulated when I was at law school was that of the ‘blonde who tumbled out of a teacher’s office in a dishevelled state. I had no reason to believe the story to be true, but I did lose a little respect for the teacher.This was a solid leftist, his partner was a hard working American, he never patronized Starbucks, and believed in community parenting. I can understand the terrible temptation – a woman who is capable of consent thrusts herself upon a teacher in a country where free-willed sexual encounters are not criminalized, the age difference is kosher, and in some sense, the teacher is not infantilizing her or being paternalistic by making the choice for her that nothing should transpire. The only thing holding him back is accountability to the oblivious partner who during that moment may be mopping vomit from an oncology floor at the local hospital.

Even more unclear is the case of the teacher who talks explicitly in class. I had an English teacher who was teaching us Gothic Fiction. He invited the students to his house to watch the film “BladeRunner” and then in class said that the character had to have strong legs as being a prostitute it was inevitable. An American student was so disturbed, she confronted him and called him out in class as being unnecessarily sexual. It was an awkward moment and to my relief, he defended it. How can you teach Dracula and the Exorcist without talking about sex and sexuality? There is no point supporting a puritanical position by mistaking it for feminism.

But still, regardless of the age differential and subject matter, the onus should be upon the teacher to ensure that he does not tacitly or expressly encourage flirtation or be kinky otherwise. I know that makes life very boring and bereft of the exciting possibilities in the riskiest of human relationships – but think regulatory.

Some relationships can turn abusive and the weakest must be protected from behaviour that amounts to harassment, incitement, or other offences. There is a power dynamic in a student-teacher relationship regardless. The teacher is empowered. Students are unemployed, younger, “wet bus stop, she’s waiting, his car is warm and dry, notwithstanding.”

So here’s the drill.

Don’t flirt back because there is potential for abuse. When in a meeting , leave doors open. Always make sure someone else is present when you meet with a student. Don’t always treat the students to pizzas and burgers. Avoid all meetings in cafes and restaurants. Be cordial and polite, not demeaning and negative. If you can’t help the urges, seek help, get out of teaching and go to a call centre.

The original blog post can be found here.

Abira Ashfaq

Abira Ashfaq

A law teacher in Karachi who works with human rights organisations. She tweets @oil_is_opium. (twitter.com/oil_is_opium)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Salman Arshad

    A very mature take on the subject!

    What you left out but should have been included in my opinion, was that IF there was supposed to be something going on between the teacher and the student, it should be OUT of school. Or in other words, should not have to influence the student-teacher relationship. That is the key issue here.

    A relationship between two people who happen to be student and teacher in itself is not wrong in any way, even if starts inside the class.

    The issue is pretty much the same in a work environment.Recommend

  • Dr. Ali Ahmed

    Welldone.. the issue is more of a cultural. the day we stop taking females as [sex] object only.. that would be the time when harassment would diminish.. somehow we all [the men only] have forced ourselves from being evolved within the socio-cultural parameters Recommend

  • Sirat-ul-mustaqeem

    Well these are all the reasons why different gender teachers should not be allowed in an Islamic country. I feel proud that I did not have to go through such miserable situations like this student did. May Pakistan one day have segregated institutions and a different gender teacher policy in all types of educations environments. That will happen one day InshaAllahRecommend

  • Ali

    In my university, female teachers are always supportive towards girl students but male teachers – all of them are freaks. I don’t understand the hysteria behind this. Why do we live in a society where only girls can be cute and hot. Why can’t boys get favors from their female teachers?Recommend

  • CommonSense

    This is such an important issue. Its not some Westernised society vulgarity, but something that is extremely common in Pakistani society as well. I have seen girl students also be as predatory as male teachers. Some girls even play up for the grades. In this regard its important for teachers to keep an eye out not only for male teachers who are overstepping the line but to also keep an eye on students inorder to protect the teachers from being put into difficult positions.Recommend

  • acha bacha

    This piece of writing was fabulous.We all male student note these things frequently in class when male teacher give proper response to girl. Most of the times, girls do not know about about sexual risks and teachers take its advantage. Even though in exams’ results, male teacher gives good grades to a cool girl, whereas, laborious guy deserves it. I’ll request girls to keep them aside male teachers because habitually their intentions are not in girls’ favor. Recommend

  • http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Jahanzaib-Haque/149352001744540?ref=ts Jahanzaib Haque

    Excellent read, as always.Recommend

  • waqqas iftikhar

    @siratu ul mustaqeem….so homosexuals and lesbians don’t exist and the maulvis molesting kids in madrassahs doesn’t happen?

    Gender has got nothing to do with this type of abuse….its the mindset of the person in a position of authority.Recommend

  • Atika Rehman

    I agree 100%. Students should beware of creepy teachers, and teachers of creepy students. I Good read as always. Recommend

  • sabahat24

    Interesting read, but I take exception to some if the points, being a teacher myself. I gave often sat down next to my 14 year old students while correcting their work. Does that make me some kind of sexual predator? I am a teacher who us trying to correct their English, no more, no less. Why should I be judged so harshly? Should not the boys teach themselves to see it as nothing but an interaction between a teacher and a student that requires proximity if the sort, and has no flirtatious undertones whatsoever. Recommend

  • http://bakedsunshine.wordpress.com Shumaila

    Thank you for bringing up this topic. I read the post originally on your blog, and it set me thinking. You’re so right when it comes to the power teachers hold. There is a far more likely chance of younger people being manipulated by authority figures. Teachers, responsible ones, must be careful not to give off the wrong message and to keep things platonic, even if their lovestruck impressionable proteges are confused enough to try to push things further.Recommend

  • Ahmed Malik

    Everyone who has been to a college will definitely agree. Recommend

  • Ali Tipu

    A very interesting read and an important subject to write on. 2 years ago, when I (then 26) started teaching in a university, I had absolutely no idea how to deal with this particular situation. My confusion stemmed from the fact that the administration had politely conveyed to the teachers that they must be aware of the rules and regulations and that any case of misconduct, flirting with the students shall not be tolerated at all. On top of that , I didn’t have any experience of teaching to a class consisting of both male and female students. I was extra cautious, which resulted in lack of communication with the female students of the class. It was not like I didn’t teach them well and favored the boys more than the girls. It was more about that plain face I kept making while talking to the female students with a ‘warning/limit’ sign written on it.It did the trick eventually at the expense of my repute,my behavior among the female students of the college. With the passage of time, I learnt the art of tackling the students not only from different genders but also belonging to different backgrounds. I think teaching itself is a very difficult profession. As a teacher , Its all about maintaining that balance in your personality, in your communication, in your meetings with the students so that they could not only respect you and respect your profession but also talk to you about their problems and the queries while being at ease. Recommend

  • Bisma

    Extremely well written with a very mature and pertinent point of view. Where exactly does the line get drawn? That is the question both asked and answered time and again, often with extremely varying degrees of answers and perception..

    Kudo’s to the authorRecommend

  • Rathore

    A good read I must say and the issue goes both sides with the male teachers as well the female students,one cannot deny that this kind of a situations exists in all parts of the world and its not just in Pak.
    As Ms Abira in her closing note gave preventive measures to this I’d just like to add on that parents should always be open and talk to their children about any issues as such and the teachers(male/female) should be bold enough to give off warning signs to studentsRecommend

  • Shehryar

    This article is a very good basis for NO to co-education.

    Co-Education is the reason for this abnormal behavior and reactions. RAW minds in adolescence being pulled into something they were not warned about in their brought up.

    co-education is another heridatory evil passed to us by our colonial masters.Recommend

  • Qudsia

    One of the most responsible and mature articles I’ve read in ET blogs. Great read!Recommend

  • Ahmed

    A very nice article.

    However, I am a bit disappointed to always find people assuming that only males are doing such thing. If we never focus on boys facing similar problems, assuming they must be much smaller in number, how will we ever find out if the numbers are really small.

    When I was in high school, I had a huge crush on one of my 30ish teacher and she led it on in a big way. May be she was just being nice, but it pushed me at least two grades down in my matriculation exams.

    I am a teacher now myself and totally discourage any such situation.Recommend

  • Ahmed

    However, in our universities, most of the male teachers really act pathetically towards female students.Recommend

  • Sadia Rashid

    Too long. Didn’t read. =DRecommend

  • Ather Sultan

    @Abira:
    I think “flirting” is not the right word rather it should be “infatuation”. However, having said that, there is a thin line between a student-teacher relationship which should never be crossed. But given the commercialism in education and rising unemployment these days, young boys/girls who have just graduated seek charm in teaching but don’t realize the fact that greater authority means greater responsibility…Recommend

  • Cynical

    @Sirat-ul-mustaqeen

    What is next? separate hospitals,separate roads and may be separate houses for men and women! That would probably be more like the Pakistan you want. Recommend

  • http://utterlyurban.com/breaking-dawn-part-1/ Dawn

    A very mature insight on this rather thought provoking subject! Teachers these days are very keen on flirting back with students that seem interested in them. For the sake of fun, or for any kind of perverse satisfaction, i don’t know. I think all teachers out there should read this article and gain something from it. Recommend

  • http://habloid.wordpress.com Habiba Younis

    One of the best posts i have ever read on ET! thanks @author for educating us about this.Recommend

  • Mohsin

    The article indeed is a very good read… but guys separating men and women is not the solution… this is just like some other experience… if the teachers’ pedagogy involve learn with fun, then discriminating between sexes is unjust… why do we judge those teachers who have same type of relationship with both sexes… agreed there is a decorum that MUST be maintained but separating sexes and considering talking about hormones a taboo, then we will be actually taking a step backwards and there a teacher can actually FACILITATE, cause s/he has a influence on student (even bad ones do)Recommend

  • Sarah Dawood

    Interesting perspectives in the article – as well as the comments by other readers.
    Good stuff.

    Might I suggest changing the word “interested” to “interesting”? First para, line 4.
    Cheers :-)Recommend

  • http://nijheer.wordpress.com Najia Z. Nazir

    I teach tertiary level students of Business Management.What I have found disturbing is the stereotypes around the firmness that one demonstrates while trying to maintain the class decorum . If a reprimand is felt necessary by a female lecturer, she is deemed as frustrated wife, who must have had a bitter word from her better-half over the breakfast.Moreover, some eager beavers would try to ‘claim’ special favours as ‘ I know you will tell my result the first’… I find it perplexing. Any ideas?Recommend

  • samia

    @ sira-tul-mustaqeem
    I used to go to school with this girl. she came from an extremely conservative background plus our school was also very conservative. we had only one or two male teachers.
    Guess what happened;for her practical exam the examiner turned out to be a guy. The poor thing not having spoken to any other guys except her own father got extremely flustered. She mucked up her whole practical and ended up getting a horrible result.

    This is why I really disagree with your view. Even if you seggregate every thing there is to seggregate how will you make sure that at some point in their life men and women will not have to come in contact with one and another? That they will not have to deal with one and another? If you do not teach both genders to treat each other respectfully from the start then our society is going to be worse of then it already is. Recommend

  • Nouman Qureshi

    I agree with samia and ali…..girls should be taught how to talk with guys…and teachers should not be freeks….both genders…..
    and i agree with ali that female students have it easy by the female teachers because of the whole anti-male society we have going in pakistan……and they also have it easy by the male teachers becuase of the whole flirting thing…where do we go…?
    its a conspiracy i tell ya!!!!….amerika kar varaha hei!!!…..cheersRecommend

  • Sehrish Qadir

    Nice work abira!
    Though irony but indeed true. You have highlighted panoramic side. Glimpsing toward this side, one may come across the voracious reality of male teachers. Being a student of college, i have noticed teachers responding to female student making them a sign of paragon just because of their looks. I can recommend many teachers as a example for this position for I have found them indulge in this case. A cataclysm such as this can effect lives of female students. Teacher, just don’t stand so close to girls. Recommend

  • http://www.etoro.com/B1915_A33591_TClick.aspx Crazy Prince

    great article Recommend

  • Scr

    reminds me of my (british, 60+) tharkee principal who’s always surrounded by girls(anywhere from 13 to 20) and always buys them stuffRecommend

  • MSAK

    @Sirat-ul-mustaqeem:
    Feel disadvantaged not proud!!! The fact that you have not had an “education” in an environment that exposes you to these realities that are not only limited to student-teacher relationships, leaves you uninformed and ill equipped to handle a situation when it arises!! But if you are content in the knowledge that your education is limited to rote and not intellect then that is your choice. Your wish should read May Pakistan have the option for those that are myopic in their approach to basic gender rights have institutions for the same gender equation. Those that do not share your point of view may be “allowed” to receive an education and thereby awareness in institutions of their choiceRecommend

  • dastan

    @waqqas iftikhar
    pakistan is just like other countries. everything, good or bad happens here..what sirat mustaqeem said was a remarks about this post. and the remark gave a suggestion which could irradiate all this phenomenon which DOES NOT entail that homosexuality does not exist and such things do not happen in madrassas. bye the way i feel very very sorry for you that an islamic solution to a problem made your mind rush to the perception that sirat mustaqeem was trying to defend the corrupt molvis and deny the existance of homosexuals. that is rude.Recommend

  • http://deleted dastan

    @Cynical:
    a good prolongation of the suggestion. but this is not how you think. because if were to think like you i would say,’ what next after co-education and flirting…. sexual freedom…..and so on.’ this not the way to ponder upon a suggestion. if there is a suggestion like for example the segregation of male and female education. one must first think why this suggestion. why the need of any suggestion at all. and this suggestion must be there after an issue was highlighted. what is the issue. look at the nature of the issue. is it old or new. its old. is it human related or not. so its human related but not a simple one. one of those complex issues relating to males and females. aren’t the male and female relationship and issue attached to it very old and complex and mostly insolvable. they are. THEY STILL ARE????? people must have tries everything to solve them. they have. except for a few…one of which is logically THE SEGREGATION OF MALE AND FEMALE EDUCATION…………….so my friend this was one of the way to adopt a positive approach to a suggestion…then if it wrong, you will know it eventually.Recommend

  • Ahmed HM

    Wonderful article !!!Recommend