When Mike Hartford of Royal Oak was 16, he had a consuming crush. “She was blond. She smelled amazing. And she wore these little glasses that made me crazy.”
She also taught Hartford about the Trail of Tears, the Civil War and the Dred Scott decision. She was, after all, Hartford’s American history teacher.
“When I look back on it, she was probably only 10 years older than me,” Hartford says. “I thought she was the most amazing woman in the world. Nothing ever happened. But if she’d ever taken an interest in me, I have to admit, I would have been totally game.”
Many students have had crushes on teachers at some point. Most, like Hartford’s, are innocent and unrequited. But headlines tell of teachers entering sexual relationships with their students. Many start with a school-age crush and an ethically compromised educator.
But if teachers handle the situation correctly and parents stress the importance of healthy relationships and boundaries, experts say, the crush can be used as an opening to discuss relationships.
Megan Rotar, a psychologist with the Mental Fitness Center in Rochester, says crushes on teachers are very common.
“Teachers, to students, are almost like celebrities,” she says. “They are there to be supportive and help the students in learning and facilitate their growth. Sometimes the teachers will fulfill a need the student has, and that can lead to a crush.
“Crushes can be healthy and positive. Students might find someone who would be a good role model for them, spark an interest in learning and help (them) figure out their newly developing romantic feelings.”
Rotar says parents should be mindful, so they can talk to their child about these feelings and why this relationship is inappropriate. Wheatley Davis, a female teacher who started at an all-boy Detroit school, says teachers don’t want parents to scold their kids over classroom crushes. Instead, they encourage open conversation.
“When kids harmlessly smile at you and beam when they see you, it is fine,” Davis says. “When they are trying to find out where you live, we as teachers would really like mom or dad to have a conversation with their child, just addressing these boundaries.”
Most crushes can be healthy and eventually fade, but others can be dangerous for the student and the teacher.
Rotar says if it starts interfering with the student’s life, becomes obsessive, if the student has expectations the feelings will be returned – or the student makes comments that make the teacher uncomfortable – parents should address it.
“Pay attention to your child’s stories. Do the cheerful, bubbly stories stop? Does the student avoid the teacher? Does the student say anything about being uncomfortable?” Rotar says. “If there are phone calls, text messages or excessive one-on-one meetings between the students and the teacher, parents need to get involved.”
Teacher sets tone
Mike Sudrovech is an elementary school P.E. teacher in the Oxford district who also coaches high school track for boys and girls. He says teachers have the responsibility, especially with teens, of reporting situations they feel warrant attention.
By handling it delicately, he says, teachers and parents can help students learn without embarrassing them or making them feel they did something wrong.
Sudrovech says he doesn’t put himself in situations where he is alone with a student. Also, he uses district email, so there’s an electronic copy of all correspondence.
“As a teacher, you can be nice, you can be polite and you can be cordial, but we don’t put out in the air the hope that we would reciprocate the student’s feelings,” he says.
To set boundaries, teachers also should dress appropriately and stick with hand shaking and neutral behaviors. They should be conscious of their actions and be careful not to flirt back. And if they’re aware students have a crush on them, they should notify the administration who, in turn, should notify the parents.
“I never had the guts to be more overt with my feelings, which is a good thing,” says Hartford of his high school history teacher. Today, he’s being mindful of his own daughter, who’s 13. “We just have to make sure it doesn’t go too far.”
This post was originally published in 2009.