Education: When a schoolboy crush goes too far: Teachers with young admirers need to take great care in the classroom. Sarah Strickland reports

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WHISPERED comments, meaningful glances, girlish giggles and anonymous love letters are all part of an average working week for some teachers.

Those who discover they are the object of a pupil's youthful ardour can usually treat the problem as a matter of harmless, innocent fun. But for some it can be the cause of acute embarrassment and distress.

David, 24, is one of the youngest teachers in a large mixed comprehensive in Cheshire. He has attracted the fervent attentions of a group of 14-year- old girls, who follow him around the school, giggling and commenting on his clothes and hair.

Recently he discovered they were keeping a diary on him, recording his daily movements along with his shoe size, the clothes he is wearing and any comments he may have addressed to them. He once found a note on his car windscreen with the words 'I love you' in three different languages, the letters cut out from a newspaper. One girl has even started her own 'private enterprise', taking photographs of him and selling them inside key-rings.

David 'quite enjoys' the attention but occasionally finds it annoying. 'It's only a harmless crush and I usually play along with it or put it down gently, so that everyone has a laugh and nobody gets hurt,' he says. 'It's something they do in the third year and grow out of. They are suffering from an overdose of hormones and latch on to you through lack of choice.'

Teachers tread a fine line when dealing with turbulent adolescent emotions. David learnt just how careful he had to be when he pecked a pupil on the cheek at the end of a Christmas show. To his astonishment the girl fainted.

'There were a lot of other people around at the time,' he says. 'I would not do anything like that if I were alone with a pupil and I would make sure the boundaries were clearly defined. I keep my third year pupils at a certain distance, am strict with them in class and only allow them to play around on my own terms.'

David is lucky - so far he is undisturbed by the schoolgirl passions he has aroused and feels able to control them. Others have more difficulty. According to Christine Keates, secretary of the Birmingham branch of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, many teachers are subject to widespread sexual harassment by pupils, ranging from remarks, innuendoes and suggestive looks to being waited for in corridors or car parks, followed home, telephoned at home and even directly propositioned.

Research by Ms Keates's branch of NAS/UWT in 1987 showed that 45 per cent of the male teachers questioned and 72 per cent of female teachers reported at least one direct experience of sexual harassment at school. More than 60 per cent of the incidents involved pupils, with young male teachers suffering the most.

Male teachers reported a range of responses, including mild amusement, flattery, embarrassment, distress, self-doubt, anger and fear that their authority was being threatened. They were far less likely than female teachers to report the incidents to the head or governors. 'One of the most frequently recorded comments was that when facing sexual harassment male teachers felt under considerable social pressure to 'cope' with the problem. Otherwise they felt they would be viewed as prudish, weak or unmanly,' the report said.

Ms Keates says teachers often don't come forward because they do not think they will be taken seriously. 'It's dismissed with a laugh or you are told you should be flattered,' she says. 'But it's no joke. Some find it extremely embarrassing when pupils make sexually suggestive comments.'

Many of the stories teachers told were 'so horrendous' that Ms Keates wished the responses had not been anonymous - people needed help, she felt.

Since the report, Birmingham education authority has produced guidelines for dealing with sexual harassment in schools, with advice to teachers on where they can turn. Many more are now contacting her, says Ms Keates, and reports by women teachers of harassment by pupils have increased.

One woman reported a pupil crawling under her desk and looking up her skirt with a mirror; another had been groped in a corridor. Ms Keates sees the development of these more blatant forms of harassment as symptomatic of a general diminishing of respect for the teacher. 'The barriers are being torn down and offensive behaviour is seen by some as acceptable and a joke.'

Susan, a teacher in a London comprehensive, finds it difficult being 'a small, young, female teacher among a lot of enormous boys'. Although she believes none has a crush on her, her male pupils often behave flirtatiously with her. One boy 'crossed all the boundaries' by leaning forward and kissing her on the cheek. 'He was the class clown and he did it as a put- down,' she said. 'I went absolutely bananas.'

Robert Edelmann, lecturer in clinical psychology at the University of Surrey and a former teacher, has recently published a book called Inter-personal Conflicts at Work. In it he describes how pupils can subtly manipulate the natural power imbalance between themselves and a teacher to their own advantage and stray over the boundaries which govern that relationship. Pupils' motives may not be immediately clear to the teacher, he writes. They may wish to 'engineer the professional's attachment by offering expressions of gratitude or praise'.

'Some pupils behave as though they can't do anything without the teacher's approval,' he says. 'They make the teacher feel special, the only one who understands. Most teachers know how to deal with that, but everyone likes to be appreciated and it can get out of hand, especially with older pupils, where the age gap is often minimal.'

Children are becoming more sexually aware and sophisticated and schoolgirl crushes can be 'far more sinister' than they once were, says Ms Keates. Teachers must be on their guard because 'there is always the potential of a pupil accusing them of behaving unsuitably'. One teacher was falsely accused of sexually assaulting a girl after unwittingly spurning her advances.

Since the introduction of the Children Act 1989, the number of false allegations of abuse by teachers has increased steadily. This is a matter of great concern to the major teaching unions, which have produced guidelines to protect teachers and are examining further proposals.

Gill Sage, solicitor for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, recently advised members to make sure they were never left alone with a pupil and to avoid any physical comforting of pupils.

Ron, now middle-aged, remembers giving a lift home to a pupil and finding himself accused of impropriety by her friend. He developed his own code of conduct: 'Treating everyone equally, not ever letting them know if there were favourites, and bringing my girlfriend along to events.' Other teachers live a good distance from the school and go ex-directory. Graham Clayton, lawyer for the National Union of Teachers, said teachers should 'nip the problem in the bud immediately' by bringing it out into the open, informing the head or a union representative. Where serious allegations were made against a teacher they would be suspended while investigations took place, which could cause great strain and make the teacher's return to school almost impossible.

Hidden dangers may lurk behind the seemingly innocent attentions of some pupils, and teachers need to be aware of that. But cases of the classroom crush becoming obsessional and vindictive remain rare.