How to set boundaries with a student without hurting her feelings?
April 14, 2014 12:21 PM   Subscribe

I recently finished teaching an introductory one month course for college freshmen. This is a small college in a semi rural low income region. A student (18) sent me a facebook friend request and I accepted. Our college does not have a web portal which could be used for communication between teachers and students. Facebook sometimes makes up for that lack when other platforms are not available for sharing educational materials, study resources, etc. This student initiated fb conversations with me. First it was just to ask me about her test results and school stuff. Then she revealed she was very worried about failing, I tried to tell her about the importance of both being dedicated and not afraid of failing, about the need to persevere, etc. Over the course of the last few days, she has started revealing more about her problems.

Her mother passed away last year, she broke up with her boyfriend a couple of months ago, there seem to be problems at home, she spoke about having been betrayed by some people she thought were her friends, etc. I tried to be encouraging and positive with my remarks while avoiding creating a sense of intimacy. I seemed to have succeeded in the former but failed in the latter.
She asked me if she could count me as her friend. I said I would be glad to help. She said I was much cooler and funnier than I showed in class.
. A few days ago she started a conversation saying she was feeling down because of her problems. I tried to cheer her up. Later when I told her I was leaving the chat session, she said I had made her day brighter, and that I had moved from "friend" to "special friend". Last Sunday night she wrote to me saying it was sad we wouldn´t be seeing each other in class anymore. A new short rant about her family problems ensued. I ended up the last conversation by telling her that she was a capable student with a pleasant personality, that I felt she would find friends worthy of her, and that many people overcome problems in life by fostering their brighter side and keeping good companies. She said she had been deeply moved by my words, which were some of the most beautiful words she had ever been told, and that she had found a very valuable friend in me. She ended by saying she hoped this did not remain a mere student/teacher relationship but turned into a true friendship.
The course is over and if things go as scheduled, I will not be teaching her group at least for 3 more years (supposing we are both at the same institution by then). I know the default response in more developed places would be to direct the student to counselling in case she reports personal problems. But there are no such resources available at the local public system, and quality private services in a larger city are too expensive for most of the kids who attend our college. I sense she may really need support from a teacher, which she may not be able to get elsewhere but I am not very comfortable with her attitude toward me and want to avoid misunderstanding on her part. The question, then, is: How can I be supportive and helpful-given the lack of outside support networks-while avoiding getting too involved? How do I set healthy boundaries without making her feel rejected? I guess I want help in translating to less brutal terms: "I care for your well-being, if you need someone to talk to, I am here for you, call me a friend if you want, but I am not your peer and don´t want you to get too emotionally invested in me"
posted by Basque13 to Human Relations (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I think one big question is are you a male or a female? Either way, it sounds like your student may be attaching to you romantically in an inappropriate way, and you need to fabricate a bit of a falsehood to get out of it.

"Lisa, I think it would be a good idea to unfriend each other on Facebook. As an instructor here, I need to avoid the appearance of impropiriety. You and I know that we have a platonic and innocent instructor/student relationship, and I'm not able to continue to interact with you on social media."

You seem to have an issue with drawing the line in your interactions with students. Students aren't your friends, or love interests or anything like that. Last week, you allowed a student to draw you into a drama between another instructor and him.

Yes, you spend a lot of time with your students in the classroom. Yes, you should care about your students. No, a hundred times no, you should NOT blur the lines.

If you are young, it's hard, but you must do it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:28 PM on April 14, 2014 [8 favorites]

I understand that you want to protect her feelings, but the best thing to do here - for both you and her - is to say almost what you typed as your last line:

"As your teacher, I am invested in your well-being. Here are some counseling resources. I am unable to be involved in your personal life. I'm sorry that won't be possible at this time."

I don't buy this "there aren't resources available" and this idea that you're her only source of support. Sorry. I think that you're making excuses here. It sounds like you're making judgments about her ability to access appropriate resources, but that's not your problem. You need to point her to some appropriate resources. Perhaps a female teacher even would be a better choice than you.

You are not her special friend. Nip this in the bud right away, because it could get really, really ugly for you.

And don't friend students on Facebook.
posted by sockermom at 12:28 PM on April 14, 2014 [21 favorites]

I don't think this situation is all that unusual, but there are some red flags in your post that make me think you need to handle this extra-delicately:

...she said I had made her day brighter, and that I had moved from "friend" to "special friend"...She said she had been deeply moved by my words, which were some of the most beautiful words she had ever been told, and that she had found a very valuable friend in me. She ended by saying she hoped this did not remain a mere student/teacher relationship but turned into a true friendship.

She seems somewhat unstable to me; while I think it's natural for vulnerable teenagers and young adults to latch on to warm authority figures from time to time, the language she's using in these messages sounds extremely tone-deaf and painfully socially awkward to me..she sounds almost unbalanced IMO. I point this out not because I think you've missed it - on the contrary! - but to underline the importance of setting boundaries without alienating her.

Here is what I would want to hear if I were acting like your student: "Hi Basque13, you were one of my students and I'd love to keep in touch. I'm also more than happy to lend an ear or helping hand when you're having a hard time. But because we're still at , you as a student and me as a professor, I think it's best to maintain a student-teacher relationship rather than a purely friendly one. Like I said, I'm here to listen and help, but because our paths are likely to occasionally cross at it needs to stay strictly professional." If she pushes back, I'd gently refer her to inexpensive therapists (perhaps there are sliding scale options near you?). Good luck.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 12:30 PM on April 14, 2014 [11 favorites]

It's going to be hard to set boundaries with her without having someplace else to direct her, should she require ongoing/escalating assistance. If your college doesn't have established mental-health services, could you maybe get in touch privately with one of the chaplains? They'd have more experience with cases like this, and might know of counselling resources you're unaware of.

Alternatively, is there a RA/ program head/ advisor/ whatever who's in charge of this person, and to whom you might pass along a heads-up that she seems to be having a difficult time?
posted by Bardolph at 12:32 PM on April 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

"I care for your well-being, if you need someone to talk to, I am here for you, call me a friend if you want, but I am not your peer and don´t want you to get too emotionally invested in me."

You don't have a clear understanding of your own boundaries, so I'm not sure how you can expect to foster her boundaries.

Stop chatting on Facebook with your student. Let her know that you need to remove her for now, but she is welcome to set up a meeting during your office hours. Talk to the dean of students at your institution and find out what resources are available.

You're not her therapist and not her friend. You're in too deep and can't navigate the mini-boundaries when you're that far in. Get out and re-establish a healthy professional relationship.

In fact, modeling a healthy, professional relationship with appropriate boundaries is the greatest kindness you can offer. Right now you're making it very hard on her by giving hot-cold responses and not being clear with what you have to offer.
posted by barnone at 12:40 PM on April 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

Surely the school has a free counseling center for students? Or has some sort of mental health resources available off-campus to send students to? Or an academic counseling center? Or some sort of Dean of Students? Honestly, I'm not sure it matters. This girl sounds like she's looking for a friend/"special friend", not any solid academic or life help. If you truly don't have any outside resources to offer her, you have to cut this thing off. Unfriend as soon as possible.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:41 PM on April 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

The answers to this question of yours from last year have some fantastic reasons to nip this in the bud (like, right fucking now). Nothing good will come of allowing this situation to continue.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 12:52 PM on April 14, 2014 [32 favorites]

1. Inform your department chair of what is going on and ask for available campus and low-cost options off campus.

2. Contact your campus's dean of students office. Surely you have one of those? Ask them the protocol to report on students you are concerned about. Then follow that protocol.

3. Tell the student, "I appreciate your need to have someone to confide in. I want you to succeed and do well. However, I do not hold the credentials or the skills to provide you with more than a student-teacher relationship, and the teacher in me says that you need more than a teacher can provide. [Information on resources that CAN help her]." DO NOT HAVE THIS CONVERSATION OVER FACEBOOK! HAVE IT IN PERSON! Preferably with someone else more qualified to assist her from the university staff present

4. Don't friend students on your personal page. Set up a professional page that students can "follow" and comment on, but don't "friend" them. Disable chat on that page. Keep these two pages separate. Always.

5. Maintain a stricter relationship with her. Do your best not to be alone with her, and if you have an office, always keep it open if she comes by.

6. You need to seriously check why you continue to have inappropriate relationships with current and former students, and I strongly suggest that you take a long break from teaching until you can manage to overcome that urge. I work in higher education, too, and I've seen my share of distressed and disturbed students. I help them within the confines of my position and every year, I instruct the faculty I work with to do the same -- to never hesitate to call on other campus resources for their own benefit but especially for the student's benefit. That you haven't called in other resources LONG AGO and that you are coming HERE to figure out what to do in this situation is a big sign that you are just not ready to be teaching college age students.
posted by zizzle at 12:59 PM on April 14, 2014 [39 favorites]

I read this question with interest and empathy, and then when I got to the end and I saw your username I actually rolled my eyes.

This is not the first time you've asked a question along these lines.

Facebook didn't exist when I was at University and WEIRDLY enough I was still able to communicate with my professors about my progress. Stop friending teenagers on Facebook and watch this problem disappear.
posted by JenThePro at 1:12 PM on April 14, 2014 [33 favorites]

Let me rephrase my earlier answer.

You don't have a clear understanding of your own boundaries

You have terrible boundaries and continue to lead young women down this path.

Stop it.
posted by barnone at 1:22 PM on April 14, 2014 [22 favorites]

IAAP, although IANAP at your college (I presume, since we have online learning environments).

1) If you want to use Facebook as an alternative to Blackboard or whatever, you need to create a *group.* Don't friend your undergraduates.

2) Hi, did I just say that you shouldn't friend your undergraduates? Really, you shouldn't. Especially when they're eighteen. This creates expectations that cannot be met in a professional teacher-student relationship. A group will both depersonalize and publicize your contact in a way that private Facebook messaging circumvents. Yes, some faculty friend their students and manage to make it work, but...

She's eighteen, you say? And vulnerable? And you're in your thirties? That's asking for all sorts of unfortunate things to happen.

Your college has some kind of mental health service available.

3) As barnone says: you have a history of these things "magically" happening, and you really need to ask yourself why. In the meantime, see #2 and #3.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:34 PM on April 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

About five sentences into this post, I thought to myself, this is from Basque13. And then I scrolled down, and lo. For you, this is not a once-off situation. The way in which you relate to women in particular historically seems to lead to misunderstandings. This is something you want to be super aware of, in that even more than others in similar positions of authority over vulnerable populations, you need to be uber-professional and maintain your boundaries with vigor. I think you need to find a mentor within your own organization who you can trust to counsel you appropriately as needed and can help you see where to intervene before situations go south. This one is already several interactions beyond where you should have drawn a boundary line.

In this situation, you don't want to let the conversation stray from what a typical Blackboard/Moodle communication system would involve. As soon as she started talking about her life issues, you ideally would have referred her to any available resources (even a national toll-free mental health number is a valid resource) and ended the conversation. "Are you my friend?" and, "You're cooler than you seem in the classroom!" statements are dangerous and need to be shut down immediately as they imply a biased and inappropriate relationship. Imagine any and all emails to students being looked at critically and unsympathetically by your employer/the student's lawyer. The answer to any future "are you my friend/special friend" nonsense is that you're an instructor who would like to see all his students succeed and a repetition of any resource recommendations. At this point I don't think it is wise to continue to offer her an ear. She may well feel rejected, which will hopefully lead to your future self being hyper-aware of this type of infatuation earlier and nipping it right when it starts to bud.
posted by vegartanipla at 1:57 PM on April 14, 2014 [9 favorites]

So, given the previous question back in August, I think it's very encouraging that you have recognized the importance of setting healthy boundaries here. The fact that you're here asking for how to do this is to me a good sign.

So with that said, you have a few things to own up to:
- You allowed her to friend you on Facebook, under the justification that it would be for professional purposes.
- You allowed her to think of her as your friend, when she asked (i.e. her peer)
- When she called you her special friend, you didn't intervene, and when she asked for a relationship outside of class, you didn't say no (I'm assuming).
- You are continuing to consider being involved with her in a support role, again justifying to yourself that you will be a professional figure in her life, and that your involvement is needed because there are no other means of support.

I think you need to be honest with yourself in that these is a dissonance between stated motives and actual behavior. Especially given your past history, you seem to desire relationships with vulnerable young women which go beyond professional bounds, and you seem to be doing a poor job of putting up appropriate boundaries when the opportunities arise. So, you can say that you were just being there in a supportive role, and put it on her for being the one to escalate things beyond professional, and now tell yourself you would assert those boundaries, but don't want to hurt her. But this is fiction - a cover story to make your behavior seem like something it is not. Likewise your attitude that you are not comfortable with her behavior appears to be fiction as well -- otherwise, why would you have encouraged it thus far, even tacitly? So, own up: you have a hero complex and an addiction. You keep pulling people into it and you're not in control of your own behavior, because you are doing the opposite of what you say you want to do. The best thing you can do for this woman is to vanish from her life before you do some real damage.

You don't want to hurt her? Don't become her abuser. Don't make her dependent on you. I don't care what you have to do, but just stop communicating with her. Unfriend her, make yourself invisible on Facebook, or just delete your account (wouldn't hurt). Here's a script: "Dear X, unfortunately due to policy I'm unable to provide personal emotional support to current and former students. I would encourage you to seek mental health counselling support." You've already said lots of supportive nice things to her -- it is time to close the door.

You don't have to say which policy or whose policy. It is MY policy. My policy says YOU are unable to provide personal or emotional support to current and former students, until such time as you sort yourself out. If you really want to do the right thing, this is it.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:08 PM on April 14, 2014 [26 favorites]

Did you ever watch House MD? There was this incredibly kind thoughtful oncologist called Wilson (House's best/only friend). Anyway, he had this habit of--in addition to being an awesome doctor--dating and having affairs with women dying from cancer. The vulnerability and desire to care and protect for a nubile female can be, honestly, overwhelming for many men. It's a base instinct. Some sexually fertile gorgeous young female is relying on you for help and comfort. Well, the biological contract--before modern society--was for you to give her that support and care... and well, she gives you herself.

This isn't illegal, given you play in the boundaries of age and law. But I think an important question is are you okay with being this person? Based off your previous question, it seems to be a mixture of your personality, opportunity, and setting. While it's easy for others to be on a moral highhorse, the truth is most of us don't have 18 year old hotties shamelessly hitting on us, and thus we never have to make those choices...

With that said, if you want to go this route, you will be their dad/boyfriend. And they will come to depend on you, and will not want to let that go. And perhaps at this point, when they feel they might lose you, the dark side of emotional war with an emotionally fraught 18 year old female from a broken home will rear its ugly head (are you prepared for that?).

I think, for your own benefit, you ought to stay away from these young women. If you run into a female who is, oh let's say 22, and seems to have stability, then class is over, and you like her, then why not. Until then just take a shower and indulge in a shower-fantasy or two, then get out and realize you are fighting a war between your brain and raw lust. And lust can be fun, but I don't think the reward is worth the cost.
posted by jjmoney at 3:24 PM on April 14, 2014 [7 favorites]

Reading over your past questions, you appear to have a history of getting inappropriatly involved with students (the 18-year old female ones, that is), as well as pushing yourself on your older colleagues (who then try to draw back from you, rather than accept your unwanted offers of 'assistance'). Why is this? Why don't or won't you make friends that are similar to your own age & experience levels?

Stop crossing the line with students: they are NOT at the school to provide you with friends or potential partners, they're only there to get an education, and NOTHING else should be happening between you and them. This is solely on YOU to stop: these girls have all been a dozen or more years younger than you, and even if any if them has been sophisticated enough to recognize how inappropriate such a relationship is, (unlikely!) you are their teacher therefore are supposed to be the smarter one here.

And generally speaking, stop trying to what, 'fix' everything for everyone you cross paths with: unless your colleagues specifically ASK for your advice, back off.
posted by easily confused at 3:57 PM on April 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think you need to separate your personal life from your professional life as it pertains to your students. You need to be seeking friendships with other teachers, not students. If you are unable to make friends with your peers (other teachers), you need to figure out what is going on with yourself—therapy might be helpful. I think you should focus on being an appropriate older adult male who models appropriate and professional behavior, which would involve distancing yourself from close personal relationships with students.

I suspect your interest in these young women are because you want to help people (hence your attraction to teaching in the first place), and how it's likely easy to think you can "help" guide these vulnerable women in their tumultuous lives because they don't understand that you are actually hurting them when you don't maintain proper boundaries. However, you are actually being unhelpful and unhealthy when you act like this, which means you are not being a good teacher.
posted by autoclavicle at 4:46 PM on April 14, 2014

You're the one that crossed a boundary by adding her as a friend on a personal Facebook account.

If you google "Facebook for Educators" you'll find guides, like this one, detailing how you can use FB as a tool in an educational setting. Why not set up a FB group, for example, and invite all of your students? If she's having trouble in the class, wouldn't it also make sense for her to reach out to her fellow teenage peers for help, too?

Being in your early 30s and having personal one-on-one conversations with a girl that was in high school just last year is professionally inappropriate.
posted by Ostara at 7:52 PM on April 14, 2014 [7 favorites]

Former vulnerable 18 year old girl here. At the time, I would have probably been flattered by your attention, regarded it as a sign of my maturity, and would totally have been sucked in. It's also the kind of relationship that I would have reflected upon with regret and disgust as an older, wiser person. Trust me, you don't want to be this girl's "what the hell was I thinking" relationship. A "special friendship" with you is not going to make her less vulnerable and may well make her situation worse.

"I care for your well-being, if you need someone to talk to, I am here for you, call me a friend if you want, but I am not your peer and don´t want you to get too emotionally invested in me"
Seriously, for some vulnerable teenage girls, myself included, this is pretty much the same thing as saying, "I like you a lot, but I'm not showing it because I am a Sophisticated Older Man, so you're going to have to try harder by seeming needier and coming on stronger. Please do more." You are not her "someone to talk to". You are not her friend. She cannot get "emotionally invested" in you at all.

Do not pursue this. Unfriend her. If you feel like you need to do something, send her a list of sliding-scale mental health professionals in your area (I am sure there are some), then unfriend her. Nothing good will come of this for either of you.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 8:14 PM on April 14, 2014 [10 favorites]

You have a clear history of being completely inappropriate with students and coworkers. You need to figure how to not do this - STAT.

Everyone in this thread is being pretty nice, so I'll just say: I think that you are being a creep. I wouldn't say that based on this question alone, but you have a job being around young girls who are vulnerable, you're in a position of power, and WHAT DO YOU KNOW? All these boundary-pushing scenarios just happen. Weird, right?

No. This stuff is 95% your fault, and instead of worrying about setting boundaries after the fact, you should act professional and respect appropriate boundaries from the get-go.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 10:25 PM on April 14, 2014 [19 favorites]

1. You must be crystal clear with her that you aren't her "special friend", that a "true friendship" is not going to happen, tell her you feel uncomfortable and you feel that this is not appropriate for a student/teacher relationship, and then give her some other contacts and resources for where she can get help from someone who isn't you and who is actually able to help in an appropriate way. Is she going to be upset and feel rejected? Yep. But it is unavoidable and the longer you keep the going the more upset and rejected and hurt she is going to feel. I understand that you don't want to hurt her but it is too late to avoid that now.

In the future do NOT friend any students or people you have authority over. No exceptions.

2. Dude, seriously? Look at your question history. Step back and take a second to see your pattern and see why so many of us find this extremely inappropriate and disturbing. Reading what you wrote here and knowing the situations you have gotten yourself in to in the past,... well, this all makes me deeply uncomfortable. You NEED to figure out how to draw proper boundaries. These situations are going to continue to happen unless you learn, NOW, how to stop allowing these inappropriate situations to happen. You clearly have a huge amount of trouble keeping appropriate levels of contact when you're in a position of power and this has the potential (likelihood) of eventually blowing up in your face and destroying your reputation and career. I think a career as an educator is a very dangerous and poor decision for you until you learn to behave professionally and maintain a professional distance from your students.

I don't believe you are intentionally doing it, but the fact is that you are doing it. You are acting inappropriately and unprofessionally. This isn't something the women are doing to you or forcing you in to. Most people have situations that COULD have developed in to situations like the ones you describe but they cut them off before they are allowed to cross a line. You don't. Lack of intent doesn't make it okay. Not meaning for it to happen doesn't make it okay. And frankly you wouldn't allow situations like this wouldn't keep happening if you didn't on some level enjoy it.

After you completely sever contact with this student I think you should schedule a counselling session. I think you should print off your past questions, including this one, and bring them to your session. I think you need to fully inform your therapist/counsellor of the depth of your difficulty with appropriate boundaries (hence bringing in your past questions) and then, working with them, develop some strategies for maintaining appropriate boundaries with your students and other people over whom you have power. You also need to work with them to learn what it is you're getting out of these inappropriate relationships and find other, healthy, appropriate ways of getting it.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 5:42 AM on April 15, 2014 [10 favorites]

I think a career as an educator is a very dangerous and poor decision for you until you learn to behave professionally and maintain a professional distance from your students.

I entirely agree with this.

OP, you need professional help. Just a few months ago, there was this question titled, "Are lust and loneliness always bad counselors?" That question set off major alarm bells for me.

This new question indicates to me that you aren't taking the problem seriously yet. You're continuing to interact with young female students in inappropriate, quasi-romantic ways. Please understand that this type of interaction is probably doing your student more harm than good. If you really care about your student's well-being, refer her to a female colleague or a national hotline for young people in crisis, and if you can't do those things then ask for help from your dean.

Bottom line is, there are other people who are more capable than you when it comes to getting help for this student. Defer to them and get yourself into counseling.
posted by keep it under cover at 2:29 PM on April 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

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