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SocietyJuly 6, 2023

I had a relationship with my teacher. It’s more common than you’d think


Helena Dray’s story continues to play out in schools across the country. I know, because it happened to me.

This week, there has been a huge outcry about a teacher at a private school who had an inappropriate relationship with a student. His behaviour is reprehensible, and cannot be condoned. 

But I know how it happened. 

When I was 15, I attended a prestigious boarding school and had a relationship with a tutor. Although this is some time ago now, the system of live-in tutors is largely unchanged. On the surface, it is a good system; university students or recent graduates get free accommodation and food in return for doing a couple of evenings of prep supervision per week and a few weekends of duty per term. Students are supervised by people who are closer to their age than their teachers, and the mentoring aspect of the relationships can be beneficial. The house parents have support with day-to-day tasks like bedtime, duty, leave requests and homework supervision – a necessity when dealing with more than a hundred students living away from home. 

The problem, however, is a pretty obvious one; for students who are only a few years younger, it’s easy to form a crush on the good-looking tutors who seem worldly and experienced, and the sort of appreciation and idolatry that infatuated students can confer on older tutors is intoxicating. 

For me, it started during supervised prep. Prep was a remnant of a previous era: complete silence, rows of desks and the expectation that work would be conducted for 90 minutes. I passed a note to him with a question about homework. He replied, the smiley face on the end sparking a flutter. I wanted to feel that flutter again. The notes became more regular, and then the notes became letters. Recommendations of books and poetry soon followed; the conversations were intellectual with a hint of flirtation that increased every day. He told me I was special, unique, different from all of the others. My thoughts were insightful, everything I talked about set me apart. The conversations were so far removed from what my 15-year-old peers were capable of as to be laughable; we spoke of the joys of Tennyson and Shelley, books read with red wine and appreciation, not monosyllabic comments on the Chiefs vs the Crusaders and where to get a crate of Speights. Pretentious I know, but as an impressionable 15-year-old with a bent for literature, I was hooked. 

‘As an impressionable 15-year-old with a bent for literature, I was hooked.’ (Photo: Getty Images)

After prep, when we had an hour or so of free time, I would wait a few moments and then follow the tutor, James*, to the back corner of the school grounds where I knew he smoked. Under the cover of darkness, we talked while he smoked, and the longer it went on, the more the conversations became about the forbidden nature of our relationship. He would try to say it was wrong, and I would convince him that we were different, that we were just talking, and there was nothing wrong.

For my sixteenth birthday he gave me a framed painting with a quote on the back from Carl Jung:  “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.”  He was tall, debonair, intelligent, and he wanted to talk to me. I was desperately eager to be wanted. 

During the holidays, we went to James’s parents’ house some distance away. We drove together, several hours each way, and for two nights I slept in the spare room. Apart from one moderately chaste kiss and a brief cuddle on the couch, little happened. We drank wine together, we watched old movies, and I convinced myself it was a real relationship. When we returned to school, I purchased my first cellphone and we began to text at night, increasingly detailed messages squeezed into the 160-character texts that the classic Alcatel One Touch Easy would allow. He came for dinner with my parents; I got my restricted licence and drove to see him on weekends. Sometimes I would pick him up and sober drive him home, hoping that he would relax his boundaries when inebriated, hoping that he would slip and kiss me again. He was only five years older than me, and intellectually we were immensely compatible. Words of love were exchanged, in letters and in person.

My roommate for several terms struck up a similar relationship with another tutor, Rob*, and we would compare notes. Who had texted who the most? What words did they use? Who had managed to get into the tutor’s apartment to hang out for the longest? I envied her because Rob went to stay with her parents and they shared a bed. I don’t think they slept together, but they felt closer than I was to James, physically, and I was jealous. 

It ended in the principal’s office with concerns raised by the house staff. I was adamant that there was nothing wrong, and my parents supported my interpretation. Nothing happened to James, and although I was watched more closely, nothing happened to me either. Our relationship continued, albeit slightly more secretive than before. My prospects of becoming a prefect were damaged, but not broken. 

I was determined, I thought I knew what I wanted, and I was completely infatuated. I was also very, very wrong. James is a teacher now, and I know he has done well in his career. At the time, he had not trained to be a teacher, and had very little training as a house tutor. Rob later became a teacher too. What became of him, I wonder? 

I may have been frustrated at the time, but I respect the restraint James did show. There were elements that were certainly wrong, and it should not have gone as far as it did, but it could have been so much worse. 

Some three years later, after I left school, I met up with an old teacher, Peter. He had been a mentor, a sports coach and an authority figure. Unlike James, he was not a mere five or six years older than me, but more than 20 years. Not quite my parents’ generation, but not far off. We worked together for a couple of days, and he invited me to stay at his house as I was living out of town by then. 

He bought dinner, poured wine, poured some more, poured some whiskey and then kissed me as I stood to say goodnight. I hadn’t seen it coming. In contrast to James, I didn’t find him attractive, and I wasn’t infatuated with him. He said nice things to me. He told me I was different. He was masterful. He had been a good teacher; I found him entertaining and he was a nice man. So I slept with him. That was the start of a two-year relationship that was entirely secret. I was 18 at the time and no longer a student. He had me sneak into his house and made sure no one ever knew. Peter took me on holiday, always to places abroad, and would never meet until the flight was over and we were safely in a different country. My parents, friends and family did not know. I did not enjoy sex with him, but I relied on the relationship, on the sense of belonging and specialness that it conferred on me, and so I stayed. I continued to sleep with him because it was expected and I didn’t know how to say no, how to extricate myself.

Legally, the relationship was acceptable; morally, it was a complete breach of trust.

Several years later, I trained to become a teacher myself. Looking back on that relationship, I could see it was completely wrong and that there was a significant power imbalance. As a teenager, as a lost school leaver with no career or sense of direction, I was vulnerable, convinced of my own maturity, completely blind to the position that I had found myself in. I don’t like the word victim, and I had full conceptual understanding of what I was doing, I just didn’t have the broader framework within which to place the relationship.

Over a decade later, I found myself teaching at my old school, where Peter still held his same position. This time, we met on more equal ground; I had a career, a family, an education and experience. Sitting on the school grounds overlooking a field, I explained to him that our prior relationship was wrong, that there had been a power imbalance and that I saw his actions as predatory and reminiscent of the #metoo movement. He struggled to grasp the concept; after all, I was of age, a willing participant, and it had been legal.

As a teacher, I have a different perspective on these experiences. I have been beyond careful to ensure I never placed myself in similar situations, yet I see how they can happen all too easily. Teenagers are so eager to grow up, and school leavers are still tied to the sense of glory and belonging that many had at high school. High school is a time of growth, of secrecy, and of finding out where the boundaries lie. There is a desire to experience life, to skip the painful process of discovery, to be in a “real” relationship. Older men offer conversation, sophistication, flattery, and a sense of approval that can be seductive. It is a powerful cocktail that can be very, very difficult to resist. Introduce fatigue, alcohol, a sense of the forbidden and the belief that the teenager is special, and inappropriate relationships are easily formed.   

‘The landscape has changed, and boundaries are easier to transgress.’ (Image: Tina Tiller)

At the time of my teacher training, there was no practical guidance on dealing with such situations. The topic of relationships was confined to an understanding of the National Education Guidelines and the requirements for registration – both very clear documents but also dry and academic. Make no mistake, we were left with no illusions about what was and was not appropriate. But the landscape has changed, and boundaries are easier to transgress. I wrote letters as a student. Today, social media is ubiquitous, and it’s a medium that lends itself to flirtation, allowing the person at the end of the phone to be ageless; you are as old as you sound on a phone. 

Young teachers need clear guidelines around what action to take if they find themselves in similar situations. They need mentoring, and a crystal clear understanding of what constitutes a boundary. There is an abstract knowledge of “wrong” that is hard to apply when placed against the forces of adolescent certainty, hormonal desires, and the lure of the forbidden. I don’t think it’s coincidence that both of the tutors who were embroiled in these situations later became educators – they were both individuals who were able to easily communicate with teenagers.

There is a case for mentoring, for professional external supervision where these difficult situations can be raised at their genesis, and the young tutors can be counselled in real-time. Interactions with young people have a nuanced complexity; mentors have a deep desire to support and help students that is often in direct conflict with students’ requests for secrecy and limited awareness of where the boundaries lie. 

If you had asked me about either of my teenage relationships at the time, I would have vehemently asserted my knowledge of self, maturity, and ability to make my own decisions. I would have been wrong. I was a victim – not in the sense that I was helpless, but in the sense that harm was caused and that the repercussions of these secret relationships lasted for a decade, impacting my ability to trust, to form genuine relationships, and come to terms with how I was manipulated.

My next two relationships were with older men who had a reason to keep our relationship secret. That was the dynamic I knew, that was familiar, and the secrecy began to feel like a habit. Even today, I fight internally against any language that paints me as a victim, and justify the behaviour of the men. I feel as though it is my responsibility, and that is one more ramification of their actions that I bear. 

The irony is that the most important thing a teacher can do is form positive relationships with their students. This is a tremendous responsibility and one that needs to be recognised. If curriculum content is missed, students can google the answer, they can catch up at university, they can learn knowledge and skills. However, if those relationships are abused, the ramifications can last years and have an ongoing detrimental effect on each student’s life.  

I admire Helena Dray enormously. She has the courage to own her story amid a media firestorm and to openly refuse to be a victim without a voice. To recognise the situation that she found herself in and the ongoing ramifications is tremendously self-aware – something that took me many more years to accomplish. To speak out, to acknowledge the vulnerability of the teen years, and to condemn the behaviour of one who was supposed to care for her will make it easier for the next young person to speak up. 

My journey is different. It has taken me longer to understand my vulnerability and to acknowledge the impact that those teenage relationships have had on my life. I am a generation removed from Helena, my experiences occurred before #metoo, at a time when perspectives on perpetrator and victim were very different – and there is an inherent reticence that is difficult to overcome. Perhaps my unwillingness to name the perpetrators today will allow them the detachment that Helena speaks of, the internal justification for their actions that fills their own narrative. I have other professional and familial concerns that prevent me from taking that step, yet I have held them to account personally and confronted them with the harm of their actions. I am confident that they have not groomed or targeted any other students, and for me, for now, that is sufficient.  

Helena has redefined the narrative of what it is to be a young woman at the mercy of a teacher in a position of power. She has reclaimed that power and her statement will very likely prevent others from falling prey to the same tricks. I understand how she got there. It can happen too easily and she is far from alone. There are many of us, and we are not at fault. 

* JP Stanley is a pen name and other names have been changed at the author’s request.

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