Students who are experiencing a new openness express their stand on
Story and picture by WEENA NOPPAKUNTHONG
Scope of this article
It is important to set out the scope of this article, which is limited to university level students of a mature and legal age who could make a rational decision whether to date a person they liked _ whether or not that person was their teacher.
The term ``student-teacher dating'' shall include ``teacher-student dating'' and shall apply to a Thai or foreign male or female teacher dating a Thai or foreign male or female student, or any combination thereof.
For purposes of this article, teachers are no more than five to seven years older or younger than the student. Also, the primary purpose of the relationship is the couple's genuine mutual attraction and not a nefarious motive, such as ``sex for grade'', or any other exploitive arrangement. The teacher and student are at the same education institution, but the student may or may not be in the teacher's class.
In a nutshell, then, this article is concerned with college-age students in their very late teens or twenties who might find themselves in a personal interaction with a teacher in their twenties. The attraction may be from teacher to student, from student to teacher, or mutual.
Openness breeds change
A decade or more ago, it would be safe to conclude that there would be a consensus of disdain against any type of student-teacher dating relationship. With the passage of time and the increasing openness of Thai society to Western movies, music, morals and mores, it may not be surprising that many younger Thais are willing to turn a blind eye to romantic relationships between students and teachers; while others are willing to accept a romantic relationship between a student and a teacher, even if they themselves would never condone or participate in such an affair.
There are others who say they are willing to accept a relationship between a teacher and a student as long as the couple abides by certain conditions, which are discussed later. Relationships are often kept secret to avoid punishment by the institution or to prevent colleagues of the dating parties from judging the couple.
The teacher was `hitting on' me
On-Anong Siriphonlai, a first year university student, thinks a student-teacher relationship is ``outrageous''. Her strong opinion results from the fact that she was approached by a teacher when she was still new at the university. Being tall, slim and stunning make On-Anong a natural target of attraction.
According to On-Anong, one of her advisers was seeking to do more than just give her advice on which classes to take. She dismissed earlier signs of special interest by the adviser, such as phone calls late at night, a long glance directed solely at her despite the presence of another student during an appointment, and even an inquiry as to whether she had a boyfriend. From the very start, she hesitated to entertain his attempts to become more personal with her because he was a professor at her school, she said.
"When he told me that he had two free movie tickets,'' says On-Anong, it was then that she realized the professor was `hitting on' (courting) her. She says she immediately reacted with the excuse that she was preoccupied.
Her advice to other students is not to play along if a teacher approaches them, even if it is just for a dinner or a movie. In the end, On-Anong says, ``the student will always be the one at risk because people will think that it's the student who first approached the teacher.''
Not all amorous attractions between students and teachers are one-sided, of course. Ajarn Somyos Promngam, 48, who teaches at a state university in Surin province, says that he knows a married couple who began dating when they were teacher and student. He does not believe it is wrong for a teacher and student to date as long as they do not do anything damaging to the school and remember to keep the Thai traditional values of not having pre-marital sex.
Typically language institutes, where a majority of students are usually college students and of legal age, also apply the no-dating rule to the student-teacher relationships, similar to universities.
Michael Peters, an American teacher at a language institute in Bangkok, openly admits that he and his former student have been happily married for almost 10 years. They met when she was a student in his class, but they started dating only after she was no longer in his class. During their courtship, she remained a student at the school where he was teaching, he says.
Peters says he informed the head teacher about their relationship, and requested that his then-girlfriend not be enrolled in anymore of his classes. The relationship between Peters and his former student was kept secret between the couple and the language institute's head teacher. Peters agrees that the `no-dating' rule is a necessary rule, and that there are valid reasons for keeping it as a standard to govern the conduct between students and teachers. An obvious reason for the rule is that any interpersonal problems that develop within the student-teacher personal relationship will inevitably spill over into the classroom and taint the education process.
However, if the couple is able to pursue their relationship in a manner that does not in any way affect the classroom, the administration of education or other students, and is not based on a nefarious or exploitive arrangement, Peters thinks that penalizing either a teacher or student merely for dating each other makes no sense.
Ajarn Jamison (not his real name) said that he didn't realize how prevalent student-teacher relationships were until he learned during casual conversations at a school Christmas party that up to 10 of his colleagues had for years been living with or successfully married to a person who at one time had been the teacher's student.
'Acceptable', but `with conditions'
``It's their personal life and their individual right. It is really alright as long as they don't damage the institution's name, but I don't think they should disclose their relationship publicly,'' says Vollavut Saisakul, an 18-year-old at Assumption Business Administration College (Abac).
A business major at Thammasat University, Jongshan Fan says, ``I don't think it's ever appropriate if the teacher is still teaching the student, but if the teacher no longer holds influence over the student's grade, then it's okay''.
The compromise of the grading system concerns many students. Noong Ning, a student in the master's program at Chulalongkorn University, says that it is acceptable if the relationship is pure and without any hidden agenda, such as dating for a good grade or playing the who-can-date-the-teacher-first game that is often played among students.
It is inappropriate for teachers and students to date. But if they do, they should always maintain proper decorum on campus, said 21-year-old Nok (not her real name) who attends a state university in Bangkok. A 26-year-old teacher and a fourth-year student in her faculty are currently dating, she says. However, they treat each other with respect and avoid showing any signs of overt affection on campus. Nok emphasizes that this is a very serious relationship, and both their parents are aware of and approves the relationship.
Why it's not acceptable
Teaching at the Faculty of Law for almost 25 years, Assoc Prof Dr Pairojana Kampusiri, assistant rector for Thammasat University's Lampang Campus, strongly believes that student-teacher dating can never be acceptable under ethical, educational or social-community standards within the university.
He says such relationships affect the entire class' motivation to study because other students would feel that there is nothing they can do to measure up to the student involved in the illicit relationship.
The reputation of both the student and teacher will be marred through gossip as soon as the relationship begins, suggests Teetut Mateeviriyaporn, a student from a private university. The gossip would be poised to grow into accusations of unfairness or even discrimination if the student later receives a mark that other students in the class perceive he or she does not deserve.
Somchai (not his real name), also from Chula, thinks that the relationship will definitely lead to biased treatment in class and a partial grade because ``no [teacher] in that situation would be able to separate their personal and professional lives so definitively.''
When it's not mutual
What should students or teachers do when it is a one-sided attraction? If the teacher is the one who first approaches the student, Ajarn Somyos says the student should not react to the teacher. If the teacher still persists, the student should speak frankly to the teacher, and state respectfully but firmly that he or she is interested only in academic pursuits. If this approach fails, the student should seek advice from a third person whom the student trusts, perhaps another teacher, a school administrator or their parents.
Michael Peters agrees, and adds that most people will interpret non-responsiveness or a firm statement of ``I'm not interested'' as a signal to pursue the matter no further.
A German language teacher, assistant professor Wannee Wongmontrisuk, 52, from Thammasat University, Tha Prachan campus, says in such a case, the student should take action and report the matter immediately to prevent other students from being solicited and victimized.
On the other hand, she says if it is the student who approaches the teacher, the teacher has to be very strong and keep in mind that the person is their student. If a student overly shows affection towards their teacher, the teacher should politely but firmly make it clear that the student is crossing an unpardonable line, says Wannee. It is imperative that the special student-teacher professional relationship is never violated for any reason.
Peters adds that the teacher can use the no-dating-students rule as a defense, which is another good reason why institutions should have it. Using the rule as a defensive mechanism makes one party's refusal to participate less personal and helps to save the offending person's face (embarrassment).
Ajarn Pairojana says that teachers can also prevent students from making improper approaches by keeping the inside of their offices visible to passers-by by opening the blinds and keeping the door open at all times during the student's visit. This will subtly suggest to the student that neither this teacher nor this place will accommodate improper conduct or conversation.
There is still a great deal of support for rules forbidding teachers and students from violating the time-honored fiduciary relationship between students and teachers. Even when a teacher and student have genuine mutual affections in the absence of exploitive motives, most students are not willing to accept such relationships without additional conditions, such as not engaging in pre-marital sex, not overtly showing their affections in public and/or keeping the relationship secret. However, the fact that many students today are willing to accept such amorous student-teacher relationships - even with conditions - perhaps show how times are changing and that today's youths are affected by encroaching Western values and mores.
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Last modified: July 9, 2007