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Ethics of Teaching in Higher Education: #5 Dual Relationships with Students

March 26, 2012

This post is part of a series examining the Society of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education’s (STLHE) “Ethical Principles in University Teaching“. Each post will focus one area and unpack it, raise questions, and attempt to further dialogue around how to teach ethically in the higher education classroom.

The fifth area on STLHE’s list is: Dual Relationships with Students.

This fifth area is both the most obvious and perhaps the most difficult to ascertain. Let me explain. As STLHE says, the most obvious example of unethical dual relationship is sexual encounters with students – most universities have policies in this area and staff are well versed in the repercussions. The second obvious example that STLHE gives is a “close personal relationship with a current student”. The line between close and too close perhaps needs to be examined and the difference between a close working relationship and a close personal relationship defined.

A close personal relationship is defined in most university policies as: family, sexual, romantic, past working/job relationships, or those with whom you’ve had close interpersonal conflict with in the past. It’s a relationship that extends beyond what is expected from you in your role as an instructor.

A close working relationship is a natural extension of your job as an instructor: it fosters an open and honest environment, it shows care for the whole student beyond their work output (especially important in the case of graduate students), and it provides mentorship and care. But it is still professional.

If you’re unsure about the nature of your relationship with a student, the best course of action is to discuss it with the head of your department; it is best to be open and honest. Many times policies around student relationships are seen as ways to protect students but they need to be viewed as equally important ways to protect faculty. As the STLHE document points out:

The perception of favoritism on the part of other students is as educationally disastrous as actual favoritism or unfairness.

You don’t want your actions called into question and this demands awareness of and caution in the ways in which relationships can be read by other students, other faculty, or anyone else. How to do this?

  • Be transparent about intentions and communicate openly with students about your role so that there is less room for interpretation.
  • Establish boundaries, especially between work and the rest of your life, and make sure students understand them.
  • Beware what is said over email and how it can be read with the personal context removed. Once it is sent, anyone might read it and have their own spin.

It can be difficult, especially for beginning faculty, to figure out the lines between a mentor or instructor who is caring and committed to their students and an instructor who is trying to be a friend to students. I firmly believe that care for the whole student is an important method of deconstructing the fragmentation and competitiveness of the academy, but there is also a need for boundaries to be set – for both your protection and the protection of students.

Check out the rest of the series:

Part 1: Content Competence

Part 2: Pedagogical Competence

Part 3: Dealing with Sensitive Issues

Part 4: Student Development

Part 6: Confidentiality

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