When Cool Turns Creepy

In stories of classroom sexual harassment, popular teachers are often the perpetrators.

Of course, #notallcoolteachers are sex offenders. (NB: Slate is not indicating that the people in this stock photo are in a relationship, nor that the man is a predator.)


On Friday, University of Hawaii geobiologist A. Hope Jahren published a New York Times essay that laid bare one of the most insidious barriers to women’s self-confidence and success in STEM fields: sexual harassment. Through the story of a former student who asked for advice about confronting unwanted flirtations from a senior colleague, Jahren identifies a specific archetype of male authority figure in academia who introduces unwelcome sexual undertones to a professional environment.

These men frequently open their advances toward younger women in their classes or departments with an email, Jahren writes. Sometimes it opens with “I need to tell you,” or “It’s late and I can’t sleep.” It often closes with an acknowledgement of the note’s impropriety: “You know I could get fired for this.” The subjects of their harassment are left with the loathsome decision of whether to ignore the come-ons and risk letting it continue, or report it and risk backlash from an industry that has a history of papering over sexual harassment and continues to rely on written recommendations.

Jahren discloses that, since she writes about gender dynamics in the world of science, women facing such predicaments often ask her for advice. “My inbox is an inadvertent clearinghouse for unsolicited love notes,” she writes. Since her Times essay went live, Jahren has gotten a different set of responses:

Struck by that last tweet, on Monday, Toast editor Nicole Cliffe started collecting and retweeting responses from people who experienced or witnessed advances from teachers in elementary, middle, and high school.

Some users recount teacher-student relationships that ended in marriage when the younger party turned 18. Many describe behavior that appeared normal, even exciting at the time, but now seems alarming, wrong, and possibly pathological.

One of the most prominent threads that’s emerged from Cliffe’s feed is a narrative of the “cool” teacher: an authority figure, usually male, who connects with students on “their level” and uses his social cachet to groom a student, usually female, into an inappropriate relationship. The teacher—or youth pastor, or soccer coach, or choir director—takes an interest in his students’ personal lives, which is taken by students as flattering evidence of their maturity and worthiness as the teacher’s equal, not a violation of their boundaries. To teen girls in the midst of—or watching a friend in the midst of—a flirtation or sexual relationship with a teacher, he may be at once “cooler” than all the other adults in her life, but with more emotional intelligence than the comparatively immature boys in her grade. From a distance provided by age and experience, he is, of course, an insecure predator who’s adept at manipulation and deeply, profoundly uncool.

“In retrospect it’s so obvious that the ‘cool’ teachers are suspect,” Slate contributor Ruth Graham says. “What adult cares about seeming cool to 15-year-olds?” Of course, #notallcoolteachers are sex offenders. The difference between a cool, appropriate teacher and a cool, creepy teacher lies in how he treats different kinds of students and the subject matter that makes him cool. “My 10th grade history teacher was very freaking cool, and not at all creepy,” Slate editorial assistant Laura Bradley says. “He loaned everyone his CDs and talked to us about music and stuff, but treated the boys and girls exactly the same, and never pried or got too far into anyone’s personal life. It was all low-stakes subjects.” On the other end of the spectrum is my seventh grade history teacher, who tried to win our admiration by commenting on the rising hemlines in middle-school fashion, flinging rubber bands at the girl students, and making sex jokes when we turned to page 69 in our textbooks. The boy students thought he was hilarious and “cool”; some girls relished the extra attention, but others felt uneasy in his presence.

One of the most famous “cool” high school teachers in recent pop-culture memory is Alexander Maksik, whose critically acclaimed novel, You Deserve Nothing, was based on an alleged affair he had with a student. “He was a very popular teacher, and many saw him as a mentor,” wrote Slate contributor Elissa Strauss, who interviewed several of Maksik’s former students in 2011. “Some said that he treated them like adults and got them thinking about life’s big questions.” Maksik made a guest appearance on Cliffe’s Twitter feed on Monday:

Watson mentions The Squid and the Whale, which, like Mr. Holland’s Opus and most other cinematic depictions of boundary-crossing teacher-student relationships, illustrates the trope’s most typical script. Jahren explains it in her Times piece: “The [authority figure] goes on to tell her that she is special in some way, that his passion is an unfamiliar feeling that she has awakened in him, the important suggestion being that she has brought this upon herself.” Cliffe tweeted the high school version:

To a precocious teen who feels disillusioned with age-appropriate relationships and yearns to be seen as a wise-beyond-her-years woman, being singled out by a “cool” teacher or other respected adult offers a heady rush. That’s exactly why it’s the preferred angle of authority figures who wish to exploit their underlings. In response to Cliffe’s tweets, one user pointed out that Donald Nelson Bills, a Utah high school teacher convicted last year for raping one of his students, would “tell the girl she was one of his favorite and brightest students.”

The strikingly similar stories on Cliffe’s feed point to the ubiquity of the creepy or criminal teacher and the infrequency with which he’s held to task:

One Slate staffer remembers a high school English teacher who wrote a novel about a teacher who has an affair with his student. “Three people in my class think it’s based on them,” she says. “He still teaches at my high school.” Even if they don’t know exactly why or to what degree a teacher’s behavior is wrong, students often have a sure sense of who’s crossing boundaries and how. The challenge Jahren and Cliffe put to parents and teachers on Monday is to listen.