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Safe distance

Pupil crushes are commonplace. But what happens when childish infatuation turns to malicious gossip or harassment? Alison Shepherd looks at how teachers can avoid close encounters of a compromising kind.

As you admire the sackful of valentine cards that came through your letterbox yesterday, can you tell which fluffy bunny or scarlet heart was hand-picked with you in mind by a pupil with more hormones than sense?

And, if you can, do you fully appreciate the significance of the anonymous epistle? Is it, as Professor Michael Reiss of the University of London's Institute of Education believes, "a fantastic social practice" that allows teenagers to channel their rampant emotions, or is it a warning of something nasty lurking behind the hearts and flowers?

One valentine card received by maths teacher Paul Thomas was definitely the latter. He arrived at a girls' school in east London straight from a boys'

school, and it took him a while to get used to the gaggle of girls that would gather around his classroom door. Just as he was starting to take it in his stride, St Valentine's Day dawned. "I received the card in school. The sender had tried to disguise her name, but hangman-style, with both her initials in place," he says. "It took me all of two seconds to work out which Year 11 pupil it was from."

Mr Thomas had been worried about the girl for a while; he'd noticed that she always wanted to stay behind after lessons, asking for help with homework, even asking for extra tuition. "It seemed every time I turned around she was there." After he received the card, Mr Thomas's name began to appear in Tipp-Ex on desks. Even this, at first, was a bit of a laugh, until it wasn't just his name but messages about his sexual prowess. "That's when I knew I had to take it seriously. This was no ordinary schoolgirl crush. Right from the start, even before the valentine card, I made sure that a deputy head knew of my concerns."

It was this deputy who eventually told the girl that her behaviour was unacceptable and not to do it again. No new graffiti appeared on desks after the deputy's intervention, and Mr Thomas thought it had all blown over until he found half a sexually graphic letter in his piles of marking. For three months, he regularly received these torn notes, to the point where he dreaded returning to his class to pick up his marking.

"The stress was awful. Each time I went back, I wondered if there would be another one - and there always was. Some were even sent to my home. They just didn't stop." Again he called in the deputy, who eventually tracked down the culprits - three friends of the first girl, who thought it would be funny to send the letters.

The headteacher, after consulting Mr Thomas, decided to exclude them for a week, and the teacher has had no problems since. "The head, who was 100 per cent supportive, did ask if I wanted them permanently excluded, but as they were so close to their exams I thought it best not to disrupt them. I don't think, even now, they truly realise what they put me through for the sake of their 'joke'."

In some ways, Mr Thomas was lucky; the crush was containable and, although it was scary at the time, there turned out to be no malicious intent. Fear that the situation can end with accusations of abuse probably places the worst stress on teachers. The National Union of Teachers estimates that every teacher can expect to be accused of some sort of abuse at least twice in his or her career.

But Professor Reiss, a former secondary teacher who is also editor of the academic journal Sex Education, cautions against overreacting to every overture. "From a psychological and commonsense point of view, some pupils have always had, and will continue to have, crushes or romantic hopes for teachers," he says. "It is as normal as anything in the 21st century can be. We all have sexual longings, and universal experience shows that the 11-18 age range is when these feelings develop and are at their strongest."

But he adds a word of warning: "Teachers should bear in mind that excessive sexual awareness can indicate that the child has had an inappropriate sexual experience and that the school's child protection policy may need to be invoked."

Professor Reiss believes that the "overwhelming majority" of teachers have mastered the tightrope that is teenage hormones. "The skilful teacher is the one who manages, often without words, to convey to the child that his or her feelings are not going to develop into an inappropriate relationship. But, importantly, they also let the child know there is nothing abnormal about those feelings."

He points out that most teenagers recognise their emotions have to be controlled and, as a wise parent knows that children need boundaries to push against, so a wise teacher must know when to say "this far and no further". Ironically, it is this need to have emotions controlled and channelled that makes the valentine card a friend to the troubled youth. Professor Reiss says: "The anonymous valentine card allows pupils to express themselves and gives the teacher the chance to open the card and therefore acknowledge those feelings, although indirectly."

But what if the control mechanisms fail? As David Andrews, head of PE in a large, mixed comprehensive in Lancashire, says: "When does white become grey become black?" Mr Andrews has been a teacher for 20 years and is no stranger to compromising incidents. "As a 21-year-old PE and maths teacher, and dealing with girls who are only six years younger than me, I have had my moments," he says. "The attention is flattering; it is difficult not to respond when someone is saying, 'I like you. You are a nice person'. It's better than being told you're fat and ugly. But you have to remember at all times that you are dealing with children. Any slip and that is your career gone."

Professor Reiss agrees that the most dangerous time for teachers is their first three years in the profession. Women in their early twenties can quickly find the power relationship shifts when dealing with teenage boys - as the Canadian supply teacher Amy Gehring so painfully discovered. And, as Professor Reiss points out, plenty of young male teachers are "gloriously hopeless" at dealing with persistent teenagers of either sex.

Laura Roberts is a PE teacher at David Andrews's school. She qualified two years ago. As a netball coach, she formed a good relationship with a 13-year-old girl who had been given her mobile phone number to use when organising transport to out-of-school matches. It was to prove a costly decision.

"Laura came to me in a terrible state," says Mr Andrews. "For weeks, the girl had been texting her up to 15 times a day. She had sent presents and cards and invited her on holiday. Laura came to me in tears. She didn't know what to do or where to turn."

David Andrews and another senior teacher called the girl into the office and told her she had to stop or her parents would be informed. So far, she appears to have accepted the caution and Ms Roberts can now face coming into school again.

Teachers who feel unable to talk to someone about the mixed emotions that inappropriate attention can create could turn to the Teacher Support Line, which offers one-to-one counselling. "Our counsellors can help teachers sort through their feelings," says a spokesman. "Often teachers can feel guilty, that somehow they have colluded, unintentionally, with the child by giving the wrong signals. By talking to us they can see where they may have gone wrong and therefore how to put it right."

The support line offers this general advice: avoid being alone with a child; never treat children in a way that they could construe makes them special - that is, don't hold them back after class - and avoid any informal situations, particularly outside school.

But, above all, don't believe the media hype; as Professor Reiss says, the vast majority of teachers have no problem interpreting the ambiguous signals of the hormonal teenager.

Teachers' names have been changed.Teacher Support Line, formerly Teacherline: 08000 562 561

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