Dear Ms. Wai — Can I Date a Student?

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Hi Ms. Wai,

I’m a young female western woman currently teaching in China. I came in with no teaching experience, and many of my students are only a few years younger than me, so my authority and rapport with the students was a bit shaky at first. This semester, however, I’ve found that I’ve adjusted well to the teaching position and am very well-liked and respected by my students, to the point that administration has received many positive comments about me. This all feels great, but I’m a bit worried that it’s gone a little too far. It appears that several of my male students have developed some kind of crush on me. One student in particular is very friendly with me, bantering with me in class, poking gentle fun at me, telling me he’ll miss me when class ends. He has even been so bold as to come by my room before his class to compliment the way I looked. With any other student I would have hushed him and gently shooed him away, but with this one, the compliment made me feel so warm and happy for the entire day.

Crushes on teachers is nothing new, but the problem is I think I like him too (he’s 20, before you phone any authorities haha). And I think he knows it, because as authoritative as I try to be, I’m really not that stern and can be quite friendly with my students, but especially him. I’ve tried to scale it back but it’s been really hard. We get along so well and he opens up to me in ways that he doesn’t open up to other teachers. This was the kind of fulfilling student-teacher relationship that drew me to the job in the first place. But I also understand that I am in a position of power, and need to tread very carefully for both ethical and professional purposes. How do I keep my feelings (and his) in check while maintaining this great relationship we have?

Thanks for your help.

Miss English

There are many things to consider before you get into a relationship with a student.

Ah, the old teacher/student relationship. I’m a university teacher myself so I have seen a lot of these from sordid hookups to relationships that ended in marriage. Although it’s almost male teacher/female student. Kudos for breaking that stereotype. 😉

But you know as well as I that students are verboten. While you are actively teaching him you can’t let the relationship go past friendship. You know both professionally and ethically you can’t cross that line while directly influencing his academic record.

But, it’s almost the end of the school year and things can change when grades are handed in and class is over. He’s 20, which in China can mean either he’s in high school or college and you don’t say. If he’s in high school, and graduating, then I don’t see any problem with pursuing something after the school year is over.

But if he’s in college then he obviously has a few more years left before he graduates so that’s where it gets trickier. If something happened between you two, you would have to assume it would get out. Perhaps the administration wouldn’t know, but the students certainly would. They probably even have the suspicions now because of the way you two talk in class and unconscious body language.

So you need to approach this problem from the idea that everyone would know (even if you weren’t open about it.) There are basically three solutions. One, stop his advances and stop talking to him outside of class. But I’m guessing this isn’t your favorite option or you would have done it already. So let’s go to number two: Waiting.

You can talk to him about girlfriends and relationships and kinda bring up dating an older woman and a teacher and if the situation feels okay you can ask if he has feelings for you. If he does, then you can decide together to wait. Chinese guys handle waiting for a girl much better than western guys, and I’m sure he would see the wisdom in waiting as well. But this option is fraught with temptation and it would take some serious will power to be around each other and do nothing. Especially if you knew you liked each other.

So there is a third option and I have seen this firsthand a few times with successful results. The problem isn’t that you’re a teacher but you’re HIS teacher. If you can take that out of the mix, then you can proceed (with caution). You can go to the head teacher who makes your schedule and say something like, “Is it possible to keep class XX off my schedule for as long as I’m a teacher here?” (Of course the head teacher is gonna ask why, and you can say “personal reasons” or just make up an excuse.) Teachers tend to not stay with the same class more than a year anyway, so this shouldn’t be too unreasonable a request. If the head teacher says it’s not a problem, then you need to wait for the end of the school year, and then do your thang.

Maybe you think “oh, he’s gonna be a sophomore next year and I never teach sophomores so I don’t need to ask the head teacher about this.” But you do. You know how schedules change, or a teacher becomes sick and has to leave school and they need someone else to fill in. It’s never certain that you won’t teach a class, so you need to make it official that you will never teach him before you allow anything to happen between you guys. If you do that, then you no longer have the power of a teacher over him and can no longer have a “professional” relationship, so you can try a private one.

I know of several successful marriages between students and teachers (with appropriate age gaps. Since westerners graduate college much younger than Chinese it’s common that teachers are younger than their students or the same age like you said –older teachers and younger students have different issues.) So, these things happen and it seems kinda common. But this is your job and his education, and having a relationship without taking the appropriate steps puts both of those in jeopardy. So do the right thing first, then try to figure out if there is something between you you can pursue later.

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Ms Wai

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