I continue to get lots of hits from people looking for information about "teacher crushes." This March 24 post has become my second most popular post ever, trailing only the vaguely related series of posts I wrote last year on older men, younger women relationships. (One, Two, Three).
In both recent comments and e-mails, I've been asked to expand further on the subject of how teachers and professors ought to respond when they realize they are the object of various kinds of crushes. (Jazz posts a troubling personal anecdote here). In the original post, I wrote:
If we take advantage of student crushes... we make a huge mistake. We assume that the real interest was in us rather than in how we were able to make our students feel and how we were able to make them think. The best way to think about student crushes is to take them as a sign that you're probably doing your job pretty damn well.
I realize I may need to be more specific.
I will say without shame that validation is one of the many reasons why I love teaching. Yes, I love my subjects (women's history, the rise of the West, what have you). Yes, I believe I am serving Clio by introducing as many students as I can to her mysteries, her charms, and her joys. But while I believe passionately in what I'm doing, I'm also aware that my own ego does get involved. I do want my students to think I'm compelling and interesting; I want them to learn, but I also want them to enjoy learning, and to enjoy learning from me. Part of me sees teaching as service -- and another part of me teaches for validation and affirmation. I'm careful not to pander to get the latter, but when it comes my way in various forms, I won't deny that I feel pretty good!
But it's one thing to feel proud and pleased when a student tells you (after you've turned in the grades) how much they enjoyed your class. It's another thing to consciously encourage the kind of crushes that I wrote about in my previous post on the subject. While some crushes are indeed sexual or romantic in nature, most are, as I wrote before more about the student than the teacher: Students don't get crushes on me because they want to go to bed with me or be my girlfriend or boyfriend; they get crushes on me because I've got a quality that they want to bring out in themselves.
So obviously, we who teach make a disastrous mistake when we confuse a student's infatuation with us as their professors with their longing for us as actual human beings. As I told my friend and colleague "Darrren", students don't get crushes on the real "Darren" -- they get crushes on "Professor Smith", who is this exalted being they've placed on a pedestal. If Darren acts to encourage a student crush, or allows it to become expressed in action, he is likely to find (among other things) that his own fall from the pedestal will be swift and brutal!
For most of us (let's hope) our students don't see us when we're sick, whiny, tired. Like actors on a stage, we (presumably) perform at our best most of the time, concealing the reality of our frailties and our inadequacies from those whom we are teaching. For many of us in academia who were "geeks" and "nerds" in our own younger years, the sense of power and satisfaction we can derive from holding a class spellbound is tremendous -- and very, very seductive. And as far as I'm concerned, there's nothing wrong in deriving real pleasure from teaching well and knowing you're admired and heard.
But there is no greater sin in our profession than to use an individual student's crush in order to gain validation outside the classroom. Given that we've established that some crushes tend to be more sexual and others more intellectual, it's understandable that some profs may feel a tremendous curiosity about what exactly it is that a student who appears to be "crushing" really wants. Time and again, I've seen professors make the dangerous mistake of subtly encouraging a crush -- not because they intend to have an actual affair with a student, but because they are hungry for more and more validation. They may hope to entice the student into sharing more about his or her feelings, all for the satisfaction of feeling more powerful and desirable.
Students don't seem to get crushes on me as often as they used to. Some of this is because I am older, and some of it is no doubt due to the reality that my boundaries are much better than they were a decade ago. When I was a novice teacher, I did consciously encourage student crushes because they felt so damned good! I loved the little notes and the "googly" eyes I would get -- and I found myself enjoying the attention way too much. It was several years into my career before I became aware of just how manipulative and unprofessional I was being; I am happy to say that I have radically changed how I interact with students.
As I wrote about in my original post, I've mentored a couple of younger or newer male colleagues here at PCC and elsewhere. Now that I've got over a dozen years of full-time teaching under my belt, I feel as if I've had a healthy amount of experience on which to draw. I made a lot of mistakes in my early years in this profession, and have learned from them. I'd like to be able to find a way -- perhaps through published articles or workshops -- to reach more folks in my position. As with the older men, younger women issue, the subject of student crushes strikes a nearly universal nerve; I'm amazed at how many folks have shared their stories with me since I put up that original post. And I'm concerned that far too many of us who teach are wholly unprepared when we find ourselves the object of these crushes, and whether intentionally or not, may do very real damage when we respond in the wrong way.