This is a question that routinely pops up on China Teacher Internet forums from time to time. I was recently reminded of the topic when I noticed that someone had been referred to the site after presumably he conducted a Google search on the terms “TEFL dating students.”
The standard Western prohibition against dating university students is based on two broad principles: imbalance of power and conflict of interest.
An imbalance of power exists whenever there is a significant differential in status or role between two people. Common examples of this include but are not limited to the following types of relationships: teacher-student, doctor-patient (especially when the doctor is a psychotherapist), lawyer-client, and boss/supervisor-employee. The power differential is not derived simply from a nominal difference in title or position but from unequal roles in which one is the serving as the provider of some needed information or service, while the other is essentially the recipient of that knowledge or service. In this context, the power differential emanates primarily from a position of unilateral dependency as opposed to a mutual interdependency that one would more likely find in relationships that started out on an equal footing.
From a psychological perspective, it is this unilateral dependency that taints the relationship as one in which the member on the receiving end is commonly viewed as having been denied free choice. The presumed absence of free choice is based on the common occurrence of what psychoanalysts refer to as transference. Transference is characterized by an unrealistic and partial (as opposed to whole or integrated) psychological investment in another person. In this context, the provider is not seen realistically for who he is as an individual (with both strengths and weaknesses) but in the partial context of his caregiver or provider role, e.g., he is revered as the benevolent father one had always hoped for but never had, not as plain “John” or “Bill,” as he might be seen by others.
The premise here is that the person who currently holds (or previously held) the more powerful position of the two will always have the “upper hand” and, therefore, the relationship can never be considered an equal one. For this reason, several states, including Florida, prohibit a romantic relationship between a psychotherapist and a patient (including a former patient) in perpetuity, even if the patient was seen just once in consultation. Other states, such as New York, will not consider such a relationship to be evidence of professional misconduct if at least five years has passed since the last appointment and the therapeutic relationship was not deliberately interrupted in order to convert it to a romantic one.
The issue of conflict of interest is based on the presumption that a teacher cannot fairly or accurately assess the academic performance of a student he or she is romantically involved with. It is primarily for this reason that all universities have strict prohibitions against professors dating current students. Whether it is true or not, it will be assumed that there was an exchange of personal favors for higher grades and, thus, dating a current student constitutes unethical behavior, i.e., it is equivalent to selling grades.
In applying these two principles to the issue at hand (foreign English teachers in China), we must consider them in proper context. First, do foreign oral English teachers experience the same power differential with their university students in China as Western professors do with theirs and, second, can the issue of conflict of interest—in regard to the assignment of grades by foreign teachers—be realistically viewed as occurring within the same Western academic and institutional context? I think the answer to both these questions is a qualified no.
Foreign oral English teachers in China’s university system clearly exist outside the institutional, social, political, and academic mainstream. One simply cannot be regarded as holding a position of power in this context. Often, the foreign English teacher in a Chinese university is no more than a couple of years older than his students and, in addition, frequently finds himself in the difficult and awkward situation of being far more dependent on them than they are on him: as a primary source of reliable information, as well as for help in coping with the language barrier. In more cases than not, the foreign English teacher is often inadvertently engaged in a mutual interdependent relationship with his students by virtue of these aforementioned social, cultural, and political factors.
In fact, based on personal observation, I would say it is often this forced interdependency (if not unilateral dependency) that typically leads foreign teachers into romantic relationships with their university students (such that, in a different context, the attraction on the part of the teacher may never have evolved). In cases where the relationship is a unilaterally dependent one, it is typically the foreign teacher who is dependent on the student’s ability to skillfully negotiate his social environment, and not the other way around—especially if her English language skills were functional to begin with. In such instances, the mutual attraction on the part of the foreign teacher and his student can often be understood, at least in some part, as a result of the Florence Nightingale effect, i.e., wherein a nurse and her vulnerable patient fall in love. For the student, it may be the very first time in her life that she has ever known what it feels like to be truly needed and highly valued—especially by a man and particularly if she is not considered “very pretty” by Chinese standards. For the foreign teacher, he can’t possibly imagine what his life in China would be like without her.
The issue of conflict of interest (in regard to grading) is greatly mitigated by the foreign English teachers’ lack of any real power and influence in China. Ubiquitous anecdotal evidence suggests that poor and failing grades assigned by foreign oral English teachers are routinely “reassessed” by university department heads as a matter of course. Without any real power to assign grades that have meaningful consequences (and, in the overall context of academic life in China, any real meaning to begin with), the presumption of conflict of interest is, at best, a very weak one.
Although I don’t think it can be successfully argued that a foreign teacher who is sincerely and romantically involved with one of his students is necessarily engaging in unethical behavior, such conduct does raise other concerns—predominantly for the students who are involved.
Whereas it is true that female students who are rumored to be sleeping with their Chinese professors will be mercilessly gossiped about, the social fallout for the girl will be considerably worse if a foreign teacher is involved, as we now have the potentially added factors of xenophobia and racism to contend with.
If you are a foreign English teacher in China and are romantically interested in one of your students (or vice versa), do your best to avoid any physical intimacy with her until the class has ended and the possibility of having her again as a future student is nil. People will still gossip about her, especially if she is spending a considerable amount of time with you, but it is wisest not to lend any reality to it, particularly in regard to sexualizing the relationship. Remain platonic friends until the girl is no longer confined to the milieu of dormitory life, vulnerable to endless gossip and constant humiliation. If the relationship was meant to be, it will certainly survive a semester or two of waiting.