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Touching Students Has Consequences

By Walt Gardner — January 30, 2015 1 min read
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It’s sad that teachers today have to be extremely careful before doing what in the past was completely natural. I’m talking now about touching students (“Should Teachers Be Allowed to Touch Students?” The Atlantic, Jan. 23).

Touch plays an important role in learning. “More than anything else, what touch conveys is ‘I’m an ally, I’m not a threat,’” according to David Linden, author of Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart and Mind. He is referring, of course, to appropriate social touching. But what is appropriate? In today’s litigious society, an innocent touch can be misinterpreted and put the teacher in dire jeopardy. Is a hug permissible? Don’t be so sure. A female student could feel sexually aroused even though the male teacher had no such intention.

There is nothing as devastating as being accused of inappropriate touching. As a result, some teachers go to the opposite extreme and remain frozen when a student hugs them. I don’t blame them. Even if teachers prevail in defending themselves against false charges, they are forever stigmatized. When I taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the climate was entirely different. Teachers frequently hugged their students to congratulate them for their efforts, and students often hugged their teachers to express their appreciation for what they were taught. No one gave this a second thought.

I think that students are shortchanged by the cultural shift. The bond between teachers and students is essential for maximal learning. Students want to feel that their teachers care about them. Touching is one innocent way of demonstrating their concern.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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