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Are Foreign Teachers Who Date Their Students Unethical?

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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.


Comments  

 
-1 # RE: Are Foreign Teachers Who Date Their Students Unethical?Falen 2010-02-18 17:39
Uh… toss that Western stuff out the window. In Confucian tradition romance between teacher and student is considered incestuous.
 
 
# RE: RE: Are Foreign Teachers Who Date Their Students Unethical?Dr. Greg 2010-02-18 17:39
Falen, what I wrote actually informs Confucian theory. Confucius regarded the teacher-student relationship as akin to one of parent and child, in which the superior member has the duty of benevolence and care of the subordinate member. The subordinate member has the duty of obedience (and this also applied to husband and wife by the way).

By definition, this assumes a power differential between teacher and student which simply does not exist in the same way with foreign English teachers given their position as outsiders and limited roles (in most cases, and excluding foreign academicians hired to teach what are referred to as “professional courses”).

At one university I worked at, the foreign language department was quite fortunate to have a retired English teacher and school principal in their employ. He had worked there for three years until, one day, he happened to say something in class that the students took offense to (I can’t recall exactly what he said but I remember thinking it trivial at the time). As enough students complained about him, he was not retained at the end of his 3rd contract. At least at that school, the students clearly have more power than any of the foreign English teachers: The foreign teachers serve strictly at the pleasure of the students (quite literally). University students, in regard to foreign English teachers, are rarely asked “Is he a good teacher” or “what are you learning?” Instead, they are asked “Do you like him; is he humorous?” That kind of preempts the notion of incest, wouldn’t you say?

Dating one’s student, even in China as a foreign teacher, is an unwise policy and constitutes poor judgment, primarily from an organizational and sociopolitical perspective. But calling it incestuous, unethical or immoral behavior is a bit of a stretch particularly when the foreigner is often not much older than his students and is even encouraged to socialize with them at school functions and after class so that they can have more of an opportunity to practice English with a native speaker.

The conceptualizati on of the foreign English teacher as a hired friend is actually institutionaliz ed in China and is apparent in many ways: some big, some hardly noticeable. Students who would never think of addressing their Chinese professors by their first (given) names do so with foreign English teachers routinely and without a second thought throughout China’s entire educational system (irrespective of the teacher’s age or qualifications, and even in primary and secondary schools where the foreign teacher is often old enough to be the students’ grandfather). This practice and what it represents symbolically is supported and encouraged from the top down.

I can only imagine what Confucius would have to say about all of this. In regard to foreign language education in China, he’s probably rolling over in his grave.
 
 
-1 # RE: Are Foreign Teachers Who Date Their Students Unethical?Michael D. 2010-02-18 17:40
What a shame then all the Chinese professors sleeping with their students don’t know Confucian tradition. Maybe the schools should start teaching it again. Maybe it just applies to foreign teachers when the commenter is Chinese.

A few years back when I started teaching at a university in the north of China, I was assigned a Chinese colleague as an advisor. We went out for dinner and he made a point of telling me that dating your current students was frowned upon but that if the student was not a student of mine or had finished the class, it would not be a problem at all. This article reaches the same conclusion but for different reasons maybe.

I found what you wrote about dependency and the Florence Nightingale effect *very* interesting. I think it explains many relationships between foreign teachers and Chinese nationals in China, not just with students but in general.

Good job.

Mike
 
 
# RE: Are Foreign Teachers Who Date Their Students Unethical?Rick 2010-02-18 17:40
My first year in China I worked at a private school teaching adults and corporate clients. I was specifically told that dating students was not a problem, because no grades were involved, but that if I dated any of the Chinese colleagues that was grounds for immediate dismissal.

The story behind that was the year before I arrived this foreign teacher had a big love affair with one of the Chinese teachers and when it ended, it ended badly. Somehow she blamed both the school and the teacher for the breakup and in retaliation she called as many students as she could to bad mouth the school and the teacher. Ever since then, dating colleagues has been strictly prohibited and they do their best to keep the foreign teachers separated from the Chinese teachers.

About grading at the varsity level, I don’t bother to fail students anymore because when I did, the department head would call me and pressure me to retest the students the first week of the following semester. By retest he meant I was to change the grade to a 70. So I agree that the grades don’t mean much just as long as everyone passes the class. I don’t think any of my female students are going to want to sleep with me simply to raise their grade from a 70 to a 90. LOL All they care about is just passing the class which everyone does anyway.
 
 
# RE: Are Foreign Teachers Who Date Their Students Unethical?Mick 2010-02-18 17:41
I’m not going to mention any names but I teach English at a prestigious key university in the south of China. I automatically failed any student who didn’t attend my class regularly and I never heard anything more about it. One day one of my former students told me that any student who failed my class would just be assigned to take a makeup final exam with one of the Chinese English teachers right before graduation and of course they would pass the class, especially if their father was a big shot.

I think I can safely say none of my students would show interest in me just as a way to pass the class.

The real problem is not when a student and foreign teacher discretely maintain a romantic relationship on the side. Everyone will know about it, there will be gossip and maybe a few unapproving stares but no one would say anything about it to the FT if he was doing a good job and they were happy with him. The problem is when an FT starts sleeping around and ends up pissing off a bunch of girls who then find a way of complaining about the teacher for some other reason. As noted above, as soon as the students start complaining about the teacher for any reason, the FT is out.

Good article. I enjoy reading this site.
 
 
# RE: Are Foreign Teachers Who Date Their Students Unethical?Frank Smith 2010-02-18 17:41
I’m American male on my 16th continuous year teaching English in China at famous university. (no 5 year rule here :>) ) Several years ago, I made the mistake of dating a student in my class. We dated for 6 weeks and then broke up. As a result she took revenge on me in the class by refusing to do any homework, constantly using cell phone in class, walking in and out several times in a 2 hour class, refusing to speak when I called attendance, interrupted me while I was speaking with childish questions ( can i go to the WC? can we have a break now? ) etc. I would advise against dating students for this reason. Their revenge is swift, harsh and very public.
 
 
# RE: Are Foreign Teachers Who Date Their Students Unethical?Steve 2010-02-18 17:41
An interesting read and I agree with the conclusion that no ethical line is crossed. I can also imagine the Florence Nightingale effect coming into play. However, I disagree with the idea that a forced or unilateral dependency is the prime mover that leads to relationships between foreign teachers and their students.

Whether we admit it or not, we are specifically talking about relations between male foreign teachers and female students. And let’s admit that part or a large part of the allure of teaching English in Asia is the dating opportunities. If ethics aren’t an issue then female students are simply young women who are interested in your culture and you spend a lot of time interacting with them.

If there were alternatives would all male foreign teachers choose to navigate the environment sans close relations with female students on the basis that other forms of support would be more problem free? I think male foreign teachers consciously or unconsciously choose to be close to female students on the hope that it will lead to some kind of relationship.
 
 
# RE: RE: Are Foreign Teachers Who Date Their Students Unethical?Dr. Greg 2010-02-18 17:42
Hi Steve,

Thank you for your very thoughtful reply.

I agree that the prospect of broader dating opportunities does play a significant role in many foreign teachers’ decision to teach in Asia. However, I don’t think most realized or ever considered that those dating opportunities would be primarily limited to university students prior to arriving in China. Would all male foreign teachers necessarily forego a close relationship with their female students if other less problematic forms of support were available to them? No, of course not, but I still think that limited availability (in terms of Chinese women who can actually speak more than a few words of English beyond “hello,” “okay,” and “goodbye”) does account for a significant percentage of those relationships. Outside of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, most foreign teachers will be faced with the option of either dating a current or former student (or some university English major student) or not dating at all.

Of course, proximity and limited availability will always influence dating choices irrespective of country. If I am a Jew in Montgomery, Alabama, and I want to date and eventually marry another Jew, what are my options? I’ll either end up dating a girl at the one and only synagogue in town or I’ll find myself on the Internet considering girls from all over the states (which is what many foreign teachers in China actually end up doing on sites such as asiafriendfinde r.com, etc.). For most foreign male teachers in China, their university’s foreign language department is their local synagogue so to speak.

I appreciate that this is all entirely academic because the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of universities do not provide alternative forms of support. However, aside from that, I’m still willing to bet that if there was some way to study this, you would find a much higher percentage of these teacher-student relationships in Rizhao, Shandong province, for example, than you would in Beijing or Shanghai.

I lived and worked in Haikou, Hainan province for four years. I can tell you that outside of the city’s university students, who were also English majors, I never encountered a Chinese woman who could speak more than a few words of English in all that time. Actually, I met my current wife while vacationing in Hong Kong (and she’s not Chinese, but that’s another story).
 
 
# RE: RE: RE: Are Foreign Teachers Who Date Their Students Unethical?Michael Lomker 2010-02-18 17:42
>current wife

I’ve caught myself using that qualifier when discussing people’s boyfriends or girlfriends. Dating is fairly transient but even in that context I always felt a bit odd about it.

I find it intriguing because it is a seemingly innocuous word but it implies more than we may have intended to say.
 
 
+1 # RE: Are Foreign Teachers Who Date Their Students Unethical?Andy 2010-02-18 17:43
There are millions and millions of single girls in China and plenty of opportunities to meet them….in my opinion, lets keep our pants on in the class room.
 

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