Occasionally, I head out to volunteer to teach robotics programming at an all-girls school in my area. For context, I'm male and age 20, and the students are adolescent females in 7th and 8th grade (13-15 year olds).

When I head out to teach, most of the students there treat me professionally, with a teacher-student relationship. I usually act "fun" with the students, as if I were another kid with similar interests. However, a few attempt to flirt with me, asking me about my relationship status or complimenting me on my appearance. (The flirting is completely verbal and not physical in any way.)

I understand where they're coming from; they're adolescent teenagers who don't normally see younger males (though the school does have male teachers and staff, but they're much older). For my part, I don't have any "embellishments" or any specific features that would render me "attractive" in my society, but one student has commented that I look "younger" than my age.

When one of these students starts to flirt with me, how can I make it clear that this isn't the right time or place to make such comments or questions and that they should be treating me professionally? The director of the program has told us to lie about our relationship status (i.e. to say "I have a girlfriend") in response to such comments, but I'd prefer not to lie to accomplish my purpose.


Note: Not a duplicate of How to handle students in a classroom who might have feelings for you?. First of all, the person in question is not only much older, but also the consistent instructor of the class; I, on the other hand, am just a volunteer who goes there on an infrequent basis. Second, the "feelings" in question there are genuine romantic feelings, not just casual flirting. Third, the "students" in question there are grown adults at about my age; the answer may be different for adolescent children.

Additionally, the top answer there isn't really a way I wish to handle this situation. I can't "stop flirting with my students" because I am not. Also, I don't wish to say things like "that's not relevant to this discussion" because I'm a volunteer, not a teacher, and the attitude I wish to show to my students is that of a "fun" person who's also knowledgeable; saying direct things like "that's too personal" is too direct for my purpose. The other answer there completely contradicts this as well.

11 Answers 11

up vote 105 down vote accepted

Given the constraints you've laid out in your question, you can't.

You want to be seen (roughly) as a peer to these students, but also want them to treat you as a professional that is off-limits for any non-professional activities. You want to clearly lay out a broad class of behaviors you would like the students to cease, but don't want to be direct in expressing those. You don't want to deflect the issue by lying, either. That doesn't leave many options.

I don't think that there is any way to accomplish all of your goals at once, and so you'll have to pick which one (or ones) to bend on.

The flirting you describe explicitly is extremely mild, and while I'm not second-guessing your assessment of your situation I will say that those sorts of questions can definitely be ordinary, non-flirtatious conversation. Those are the sorts of things that young teenagers tend to focus on, a lot, and so all else being equal you're simply more likely to have conversations about that than about national trade policy.

Background informing my answer:

I see three large issues at play here: the age and stage-of-life of the students, the nature of flirting, and the way you want to present yourself to this group.

1. Age and stage-of-life of the students

My recollection of young teenagers, particularly girls (and this is very much in the rearview mirror for me at this point, so it may not apply as well as it once did) is that that is the age when they start to practice flirting. They may flirt with anyone, including someone in whom they don't have much genuine interest, because they are experimenting with a new mode of interaction which offers new possibilities. It also feels like part of not being a child any more.

I say all of this to point out that, while you are probably not irrelevant in this situation, it may not be as centered on you as you imagine. If they are looking to flirt more so than to flirt with you specifically, then they are less likely to care what you think about it. The more the behavior is a part of the girls' internal motivations, the more the issue resembles a student with some other arbitrary, undesirable behavior, like being disruptive during class or gossiping. If that's how they want to express themselves, and you just happen to be a target when you're there, you'll have a hard time modifying that. Especially indirectly. This also can make the strategy of trying to appear less appealing to flirt with complicated-- it may just not matter.

2. Flirting

Flirting is about pushing limits and suggesting a bit more than is explicitly stated. If you were to be direct about not wanting to be flirted with, for example, I would bet that you would still see some flirtatious behavior from at least some of the students. Maybe less often, maybe more subtle. But establishing limits of expected behavior also sets the terms for what counts as flirtatious, and establishes the boundaries for a flirt to push.

Using your explicit examples, the behavior you describe as flirting is both extremely mild and easily masquerades as an innocent question. The latter is what makes it flirtatious (rather than forward) and also makes it hard to call out directly (it's easy to imagine a response to a call-out being "I wasn't flirting with you, I was just making conversation!"). Trying to discourage it indirectly can easily just be seen as you coyly flirting back, in which case a determined flirt might just redouble her efforts.

3. Your chosen affect

Your explicit goal in how you approach these students is to seem like a peer. Peers are the acceptable group for these students to flirt with. School is where they do the most interacting with their peers, so for them it is the appropriate place to do things like flirt.

It's a little bit like asking "when I walk down a dangerous alley, how can I appear rich without increasing my risk of getting mugged?". If you really want the one, you're at risk of dealing with the other. I'm not saying that that's right or fair, but the more you present yourself as a peer, the more they'll see you as a peer, and the more they'll treat you like a peer.

The nub of this is that you want to have your cake and eat it. You want to act like

another kid with similar interests

yet not have them respond to you as though you were

another kid with similar interests

In your interactions with the students, you set the tone for how they respond to you. If in all other ways you want them to respond to you as though you were just another kid, you set a tone of complete approachability. Their response is an outcome of the tone you set.

Your solution therefore lies in setting a different tone. I'd suggest that the appropriate tone is that of a friendly adult with a specific enthusiasm.

Quite how you backtrack to that position is difficult for anyone else to advise as we don't know that particulars of how you currently present. What you can do is make sure you don't start with the 'another kid with similar interests' tone with new student groups.

For students you already interact with you need to find ways to set yourself apart, that might involve introducing greater formality into your sessions, whether that is but how you dress, how you speak to the students, how close you allow them to be to you physically... you are best placed to judge that.

It is also likely to involve a period of awkwardness as the student body notice that you are presenting yourself differently, but in your own interest you should do this.

While your students are not grown adults, they likely aren't idiots and the ones who push the nature of your interaction already know that they are being transgressive. They are pushing you and you need to push back, and you need to push back when it happens. I know you wish to avoid directness, but it is appropriate to meet directness with directness. if a students asks you such a direct question as 'have you got a girlfriend'or says 'Ooh gparyani you look cute today!' it is absolutely appropriate to reply with something like:

What's that got to do with robotics programming?

Whatever you choose to say should be clearly rhetorical* and used as a means of closing the line of conversation down, rather than merely deflecting it.

If you say such a thing loud enough for other students to hear, but say it with a smile then it is a gentle but public rebuke which is probably just embarrassing enough for them not to ask again, and discourage others from doing so.


*meaning that it is a figure of speech in the form of a question that is asked to make a point rather than to elicit an answer. If the student tries to answer, perhaps explain what a rhetorical question is rather than engaging with responses on personal life.

Note: I am answering as a teacher, now teaching in a high school. In the past, when I was teaching assistant at university, I have been in the situation where students were trying to flirt with me. I also did my internship with a girl class (in a co-ed high school).


@Upper_case's diagnostic on the situation seems fine to me: middle school is a very special period for a teenager:

  1. Their body changes, and they want to experience the effects they make on others.
  2. Middle school is for many the time of the first boyfriend/girlfriend. As @Upper_case explained, middle schoolers need to learn how to flirt and are sometimes clumsy (when is it appropriate to flirt? when is it not? How to flirt?).
  3. They are still young and may not be aware that what is appropriate in one situation is not appropriate in another one. In short, they don't always know that they should behave "professionally" at school.
  4. It is a time where they challenge the rules of society. How fun is it to make the teacher embarrassed by asking him private questions!

Note that I am not sure that your examples (asking about your status relationship, telling that you look good) really qualify as flirting. Maybe they are genuinely interested in your life, because they feel close to you.


Whether it is flirting or not does not matter anyway: what is important is that you don't want to answer this kind of questions. Because of the fourth point above, I think the other answers, that is deflecting the question, may backfire. Actually, if the students see you are embarrassed, they may try to push the limits even further. I don't like your director's solution, as lying is often a bad option.

Here are some options:

  1. Refuse to answer private questions: be firm, but keep a friendly attitude. Don't justify yourself, you don't have to.

Student: Teacher, do you have a girlfriend?

You: I don't answer private questions. Sorry [Smile]. Let's come back to Robotics

Better, as a teacher, you can use it to teach them a lesson.

You: Maybe? You know, privacy is very important. I don't like to answer this kind of questions.

  1. Acknowledge but don't make it a big deal: how do students know they got beyond limits? Because adults got upset. So, if they tell you look good, just acknowledge and continue what you were doing.

Student: Teacher, you look great today!

You: Thanks. I was saying that [continue your last sentence].

Of course,

  1. Notify firmly when they are going beyond boundaries: being close to students does not mean you should tolerate everything. Enforcing personal limits is a way to get respected.

Student: Teacher, your suit looks good on you. It makes you look sexy.

You: Sexy? This is not a way to address a teacher. Please stop using that language from now on.

  1. Ignore the matter: sometimes, it is better to ignore small provocations to show the students they have no effect. The students had to write their name on a paper when I was a TA at university. One student wrote her name with hearts. I smiled when I saw it and tried to find which student did it. We made eye contact. The following weeks, she did it again but, because she was only a few years younger than me and I was afraid it would be considering as flirting, I decided to completely ignore it (no smile, no eye contact, keeping a perfectly neutral expression). She stopped after a short time.

Your best non-offensive way to answer that type of stuff is a smile with a deflecting comment like, "Hey, that's not robotics!" and start talking about something else without answering the question.

Note that "Hey, that's not robotics!" is a deflecting statement instead of a question (which the girl could answer, her answer would take the topic back away from robotics). If the question is received literally then it could be experienced as hurtful.

They're teenagers in a girl's school, you don't have to give them a "verbal slap" - unless one or a few of them keeps it up and/or starts getting closer to you or something.

The code of conduct comment is a good one - ask about it and talk to someone about it - explain that you want to keep this from becoming a problem.

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    This answer looks very similar to Spagirl's where they say he should respond with: "What's that got to do with robotics programming?" Furthermore, you don't really explain why you think this will work. Can you elaborate on your answer and make sure it's distinct from Spagirl's? – scohe001 Oct 12 at 18:56
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    @scohe001 My suggestion "Hey, that's not robotics!" is very different (to me) than "What's that got to do with robotics programming?" Mine is a statement and Spagirl's is a question. If the question is received literally then it could be experienced as hurtful. Or the girl it was said to could take it as a question and try to answer it - taking the topic back away from robotics again. – J. Chris Compton Oct 12 at 19:06
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    Spagirl’s is a rhetorical question, delivered as a mild rebuke. :) – Spagirl Oct 13 at 12:01
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    @J.ChrisCompton Hi! You might wanna add this additional information in your answer especially the reasoning about why OP should say that statement instead of asking a question. – A J Oct 15 at 9:00
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    @AJ Thanks for your comment! I tried to do that in the second paragraph. Feel free to pad it out more if you think it is needed. I didn't want to mention Spagirl specifically in my answer as there's nothing wrong with what she said (because she meant it to be taken as fun/harmless sarcasm) it is just my opinion that a comment would leave less area for misunderstanding. – J. Chris Compton Oct 15 at 16:18

Warning: I never was in a similar situation before. But I had to deal with comment or question that were making me uncomfortable. So, here is what I suggest doing:


Wait for the thing that makes you uncomfortable to happen, this way everyone would know what you are talking about and they won't have to wonder "what exactly is making him uncomfortable?".

Then state something like that:

Would you mind stopping this kind of comment? It's making me uncomfortable.

Stating that it makes you uncomfortable is important. I, personally, am more likely to follow someone instruction if I know why I have to follow them (if I don't, I tend to just do as I please because your rule makes no sense to me).

Warning: Be prepare for your student to push back and ask "why is this making you uncomfortable?" and "you shouldn't be uncomfortable!".

In this case, simply remember that this is your feeling and nobody can argue with feelings. They are here and, even if they are irrational (I don't say they are), you can't control them. (You might want to tell that to your student if they tell you "don't be uncomfortable!").

Note: I usually use this technic with coworkers, understandable people and grown-up stranger. I have no idea how it could turn out with teenagers and as Jamie Clinton noted, this could as well fire back.


After you have made your request clear, quickly change subject!

Otherwise, you might end up in a discussion about your feelings which you don't necessary wants. So, before this (unwanted) conversation start, just say something like:

Let's talk about X instead.

Note: They might still want to talk about why all this is making you uncomfortable but, in my experience, people are more likely to drop a subject if you give them another one to talk about instead.

  • As I said in the last paragraph, addressing it directly isn't a preferred way of handling this situation. – gparyani Oct 12 at 8:24
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    @gparyani Sorry, I was under the impression that you just didn't wanted to sound cold (but you might find my answer cold?). So, would you mind making it clearer why you don't want to use a direct approach? – Noon Oct 12 at 11:37

By way of disclaimer, I should say first of all that if the school has a code of conduct or similar that tells you how to deal with this situation, you should absolutely follow that ahead of any advice you receive here. Secondly, I would advise you to make sure that your superiors are aware of both the problem you are facing and of any strategy you propose to try. That way if it backfires or is misinterpreted you have some backup.

While your youth can certainly be used to an advantage in teaching, it just isn't possible to be an authority figure and someone's friend, although you can certainly be friendly and approachable. In England nearly all the cases I have read about where teachers have been accused of impropriety of some kind it has been described as an "abuse of authority", so remember that you should behave like a teacher, and a teacher is an authority figure.

The best and safest approach is to state with all seriousness that their behaviour is inappropriate, and that it should stop. If you try to soften the impact of that statement in any way, perhaps by saying "it would be inappropriate if....." then this could be misinterpreted by a teenager as really meaning "oh, if only I wasn't your teacher, then I would".

Just a short anecdote from personal experience which may be relevant - when I was at school 27 years ago there was a young female teacher, all the boys fancied her, and on a couple of occasions, she allowed some inappropriate things to be said and left them unchallenged. She even laughed about them. Oddly, I visited the school last week because my daughter is now high school age, and I learned two things - firstly that this same teacher has been the deputy head for the past 27 years and just retired; and secondly that the school has suffered from a bad reputation for about the same length of time. A new headteacher has just come in, got rid of a lot of old teachers (some by early retirement) and is trying to turn the school's reputation around. Now, I'm not saying that old teacher of mine is solely to blame for the school's troubles, but it is interesting that a teacher who failed to be an authority figure in the classroom has been in the second highest position in the school during its decline.

Many people at this age are desperate for answers and guidance in life. Often children get very little attention form their parents, and they spend very little time around older people, who they are supposed to use as models for being the adults that they will soon be. Children are often separated in to age groups with rather narrow age ranges.

I really agree with your trouble with the lying about having a girlfriend when you really don't school policy. First of all it teaches you to lie, and second of all it doesn't really solve anything. From their perspective, even if you did have a girlfriend, couldn't you break up with her, or have two girlfriends?

If you feel up for it, you can answer their questions with short pieces of wisdom and advice that may be valuable to their lives. They look up to you because you're older. Saying that "you have a girlfriend" enforces the idea that everyone must have a boyfriend or girlfriend. That's something that their minds are already full of and you don't need to make it worse. It should be perfectly acceptable to say that you don't have a girlfriend, and that you are spending time with other things in your life at this time. If you want to be a good model to them and you're able to, you can tell them a couple of sentences about girls that you've liked in the past and the nice things that you've done for them. Maybe it'll help them realize that being with 13 year old jerk who thinks he is better than everyone really isn't a path to happiness, and they should be strong and ignore the peer pressure. Be careful to not go too far and get in trouble with the school though! They may not take kindly to discussions about certain topics, even if it's obvious to you that the kids are already discussing things that are way beyond any bad influence you could teach them.

Also, try not to sexualize questions or take them in a bad way if you can. If somebody says "You look sexy", you can say "Oh so you think I look like a man? Thanks". It's not really a bad thing to be dressed up and look like a man after all, since that's what you are. Try to direct their thoughts to good things.

Again, I'm just talking about short phrases here that are good truthful answers. Not you becoming their relationship counselor. You can just ignore them and tell them to get back to school things once their questions become to silly and pointless.

Edit: Regarding your comment about you seeming weird to them by saying how you're not in a relationship. I don't see a way around it. It's acceptable for people to not be in a relationship, and to not be seeking one. Many people live like this, and often it's when they're older and they've been though lies and abuse and they don't want to start that over. I know what middle and high school kids are like now. They might insist that you're gay if you don't have a girlfriend, and they're not always incorrect to think that in today's culture. If you did want to make up something, you could say that you have a girlfriend in a different country that has a better economic future, and thinking of going over there at some point. At least it's an answer that will get them thinking.

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    As an ace-aro, your advice about not enforcing the perception that everyone needs a boyfriend or girlfriend is very good. But it appears that for many of these students, the things they hear from their family or peers helps enforce that feeling in them, and they might consider it "weird" that I'm implying something different. Could you please edit your answer to add additional details about how I can overcome that? – gparyani Oct 15 at 4:02

The simple solution is to tell the students that you are a member of the staff, and such comments are inappropriate.

It is likely that they probably aren't serious, and are just exploring new thoughts that are occurring to them for the first time.

But, you have to keep the big picture in mind, because you're older, and society in general will hold you to a much higher standard of behavior.

You could inadvertently get yourself in undeserved hot water if you don't stop those comments. Someone may overhear girls chatting about you, and might think that you were a willing participant. Even if totally false, just the hint of something like that can wreck your future.

Also, I don't wish to say things like "that's not relevant to this discussion" because I'm a volunteer, not a teacher

STOP

You are there in a professional teaching capacity, regardless of your payment status, or why you are working, you may or may not have the qualifications for it, but you are most definitely a part of the teaching staff when it comes down to how you should be handling yourself in front of students. You should treat yourself no differently then other Young teachers.

That said, this is super dangerous waters, you need to draw a HARD line with the students, THEY know already what they are doing is wrong, hell, it's probably the reason why they are attempting to tempt you that way, breaking taboo's is rebellious and fun.

If it's making you uncomfortable, you need to be absolutely honest but firm with them, showing weakness may cause the problem to get worse however it depends on your classroom control.

If you believe you have the gall for it, and the students are mature enough to understand, and the students truly want to be in the class, address the students involved directly.

how can I make it clear that this isn't the right time or place to make such comments or questions and that they should be treating me professionally?

"Please refrain from making comments like xyz, It can land both of us in a lot of trouble, and I would prefer to be treated a little more professionally, If the comments continue I will start removing you from the class (non-participation -> removal for 1 session -> detention -> removal from program)"

Note: This will not work if the students intentions are to get the class cancelled, get out of class, or get you both in trouble, and it's worth trying to work that out before taking action.

As for lying about having a partner, I'm not 100% sure it would help to lie (if the students are going to flirt with you regardless of you not being a student at the school, why would they care about cheating), but a way to answer that without lying is "I'm not currently looking for a relationship" Because you are not, you are in a classroom full of adolescents in a teaching capacity.

Be boring with them.

This does not mean you have to be a boring teacher. But you do need to respond to flirting with a deadpan continuation of class.

In other words, respond with something like "I'm doing very well! Have some interesting materials for you guys. Ok, class! Open your books to chapter seven, and listen up!"

Children will flirt. Hormones are a thing, and they aren't necessarily excellent at controlling them yet. The important thing is that their flirting is unilateral. Nothing breaks the mood like clear lack of playful or fun response. Moreover, if they like you, it'll let them know that the best way to get you to like them is to do their work. They may take you up on that.

Rather than being an interested peer, maybe you can view yourself more as a friendly and engaged manager. These kids aren't far from their first boss.

They won't like it, there will be some discomfort (to match your own discomfort), but address the situation as an appropriately-behaving employer would, for their benefit as well as your own. Teach them that the 'workplace' is not the place for excessive flirting, especially unreciprocated 'advances'. More especially, between a mentor and those they're helping.

It's not sexual harassment yet, and I don't mean to imply that it is or that it ever will be, but it's a teachable moment to influence their own behavior and response to such behavior.

Get another adult involved, like the guidance counselor--especially because this is a delicate area that is in no way related to the class. You're not admonishing the kids, you're teaching.

In the end, they might be a little colder and a little more distant, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.


Edit: With the current awareness about the prevalence of flirting, incessant flirting, outright misconduct, and more, this seems like an opportune moment to show the children (even children that haven't flirted with you) how easy it can be for something innocent to make another adult uncomfortable. It's too easy to read something, such as current news, and think "that behavior is repulsive, I'd never do that", it's perhaps an opportunity to show every student how easy it can be to fall into this trap.

In your reaction, you can show them that it's okay to express discomfort with flirting ore more-aggressive behavior. You can show the proper workplace channels that they can take issues to, with a counselor or authority standing in for HR.

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    Can you tell us more about why you think this is a good idea? Answers on Interpersonal Skills SE need to be well-justified and backed up with either evidence or personal experience or well-elaborated logic that shows the OP that this is a good idea. See this meta post for more information on how to write a good answer. – ElizB Oct 19 at 2:57
  • @ElizB I genuinely appreciate the advice and will take more care in the future. I have edited my post, but unfortunately have never been in the situation so can't offer experience in the matter. – Regular Joe Oct 19 at 18:34

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