Some apples leave a bitter taste

February 11, 2005

A student's crush may at first seem flattering, but if you handle it badly things could turn nasty. Harriet Swain suggests ways to avoid any unpleasant consequences

She blushes as you walk into the room. He trembles as you hand him back his assignment. All very flattering, of course, but you're beginning to suspect it's not solely your expert knowledge that's the draw. How do you cope when a student clearly wants a relationship that is more meaningful than regular seminars?

First, you need to ask yourself whether the feelings are mutual. If they are, you're in trouble. Lecturers' union Natfhe describes relationships between academic staff and students as "ill advised, unprofessional and to be discouraged". Its policy on "consensual relations" lists all sorts of reasons why they're a bad idea, from the unequal power balance and potential damage to the student's education and mental health to the possibility of disciplinary or even legal action involving the academic. The union makes some concession to romance in recognising that occasionally such relationships may be "impossible to stifle", but suggests that in such cases "they must be conducted with the utmost discretion and entirely outside the professional environment".

Lisa Matthewman, senior lecturer in occupational and organisational psychology, who is researching sex at work, says that some institutions will no longer want you to work there if they discover you have been having a relationship with a student. Universities will have different policies and cultures involving relations between staff and students, and it is important to know the attitude of your particular institution, as well as its specific policy on conflicts of interest.

But whatever your institution is likely to think, Matthewman warns that you must first be honest about your own feelings. "If it turns nasty, you would need to think back and have evidence," she says.

Phillip Hodson, fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, warns that while you may think you are receiving welcome attention from students with a crush "really they want to devour and possess you". He says students will often treat you as a mixture of mum and dad, lust object and someone to do their homework. "There are strings attached," he says. "They want you to help them grow up."

He says that, while no one can criticise you for falling in love, "Clinton behaviour" will not be tolerated. "If you want a relationship, be serious about it," he says. "Go on the basis that this is your girlfriend or boyfriend for the rest of the year."

Dave Berger, chair of the Association of University and College Counsellors, says that in his role as a counsellor he would want to hear why an academic might find it difficult to fend off amorous attention from students. It may be a lack of assertiveness skills, in which case they should perhaps look to do some relevant training. Otherwise, they will need to appeal to their head of department to speak to the student and explain that the behaviour is unacceptable.

Letting someone - probably a person in a more senior position - know what is going on is essential, he says. "You shouldn't put yourself in a position where you could be accused of favouritism - or the opposite - and you need to safeguard yourself. The most straightforward way to do that is to declare it to someone who can give advice and support - probably your line manager."

While Berger advises never being alone with the student, he acknowledges this may be impossible if there are private tutorials. In that case, he says, you must ensure that other people are aware of the time and place they are happening. It may even be necessary to assign the student to a different tutor.

It is essential to be straightforward. "It is possible to run the risk of encouraging rather than discouraging the student," he says. "If people have a crush, they often misinterpret signals." His advice is to speak to the student, explain that it is a serious matter and that if they do not stop, the head of department will be informed. You could also try directing them to counselling services if they find your rejection difficult to accept.

Matthewman also advises a direct approach, sitting down with a student and asking them why they are always hanging around your office, for example. But she concedes that feelings of embarrassment and shame can make this difficult. "Try to overcome the culture of secrecy and bring it into the open," she advises. "But make sure your line manager is trustworthy."

You have to be careful not to provoke too much anger and resentment in the student. George Fielden, principal lecturer in psychology and psychotherapy at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College, says: "Don't let them down and humiliate them, but equally don't lead them on." What constitutes leading students on is difficult to pinpoint, but one way to make things easier is to keep your private life entirely separate from your university life. Matthewman says she would never dream of going out socially with a student on her own.

Debbie Smith, a postgraduate lecturer at Kingston University, says she is always careful not to talk about boyfriends or going out in front of her students, many of whom are around her own age. "You need to maintain your position as the teacher, with them as your students," she says. She recalls as an undergraduate being aware of one PhD student who was the object of a number of crushes, largely because he always seemed to be where they were - be this the student bar or student club. Eventually, the university apparently stepped in and he disappeared from the social scene, which made his lectures much more effective.

More information:  - the lecturers' union Natfhe. Look for its policy on consensual relations  - British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy


  • Avoid succumbing to student attentions if you can help it
  • Tell someone what is going on
  • Keep your door open
  • Maintain a separate private life
  • Don't make rejections too subtle - or too cruel

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