One SMS can mar teacher's ties with students
Digital age has made bonding with students easier, but boundaries are also easily crossed By Mavis Toh
He was shocked when a student sent 'I love you' text messages to him.
The 15-year-old girl, who was from the mixed secondary school where he teaches, had also called him at wee hours to chat.
But the 37-year-old teacher, who wanted to be known only as Mr Ong, knew a line had been crossed when the text messages showed up.
But in this digital age, many students and teachers think nothing about exchanging cellphone numbers and e-mail addresses.
In Mr Ong's case, most of his students had texted him only when they were too sick to attend class. Then came the girl's intimate messages. He has since become more careful.
'I stopped giving out my number to students and am also more aware that I have to maintain my distance,' he said. Now, he only gives out his e-mail address.
Of the 30 students The Sunday Times spoke to, 18 have at least one teacher's cellphone number. Nearly all - 26 - have their teachers' e-mail addresses and 15 said they read their teachers' blogs or chat with them online.
Last week, a 32-year-old former primary school teacher pleaded guilty to having sex with a 15-year-old schoolboy. He had been a pupil in the school where she taught at. The two had earlier bonded on a school overseas trip and later kept in contact through phone calls and SMS. They ended up having sex six times.
With technology making it easier to stay in touch, just what constitutes acceptable behaviour and conduct between teachers and students? A Ministry of Education (MOE) spokesman said teachers can maintain contact with their students through cellphones and the Internet, but these interactions must be professional in nature at all times.
She added: 'Teachers are given clear guidelines as to what constitutes proper behaviour, including being professional in their interactions with students and maintaining propriety in the teacher- student relationship at all times.'
Despite the guidelines, one former teacher said that he knew of at least three male teachers whose engagement or marriage ended after they dated their students. 'There are many more cases that the authorities don't know about,' he said, adding that teachers should avoid counselling students, especially students from the opposite sex. 'Counselling is a very intimate thing and you tend to get closer to the student.'
Another male teacher, from a junior college, said: 'I try my best to just teach and not get involved in helping them with non-school-related problems.'
Mrs Belinda Charles, principal of St Andrew's Secondary, said that teachers should always play the role of a teacher, not a friend, and keep a professional distance.
But university student Clare Xu, 21, is thankful for the support her teacher in junior college gave her after she did badly in her A-levels. He helped her secure a part-time teaching job while she studied to retake her exam. He also spent time with her, giving tips on teaching. 'It was a tough year; I had always turned to him for help and advice,' she said. 'But we were always careful to maintain a clear friendship.'
Ms Xu, who will be a trainee teacher after graduating in 2011, said teachers and students can keep in contact, as long as they meet in public.
At her school, Mrs Charles tells her teachers they should never be alone in a room with a student.
One teacher, who asked to be known as Mrs Choo, 33, said that when she became a teacher, she was advised to avoid physical contact with students. Even simple gestures like patting them on the back were discouraged.
Tanjong Katong Primary's vice-principal Chua Chye Hock said teachers are reminded that communicating with students over Internet chats is 'inappropriate'. They are also discouraged from attending activities with students outside school.
As for teacher-student dating, some students interviewed felt it is acceptable - once the student graduates. 'Such people do fall in love,' said undergraduate May Koh, 21. 'But to be professional, they should date only after one leaves the school.'
MOE said it takes a serious view of misconduct by teachers and those who cross the line 'will be dealt with severely, including dismissal from service'.
Mrs Charles has this simple rule: 'It is for the teacher to keep the distance. When the adult does that, no student will overstep it.'
What is appropriate and acceptable conduct between teachers and students? E-mail [email protected]
Should students and teachers stay in contact outside of school via SMS messages, e-mail and Net chats? Have your say at straitstimes.com
A lesson learnt
'I stopped giving out my number to students and am also more aware that I have to maintain my distance.'
MR ONG, a 37-year-old teacher, on what he did after receiving 'I love you' text messages from one of his students