Blurred Lines: An Invitation to Discuss Boundary Formation and Management for Teachers

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In spring, 2013, Robin Thicke, Pharell, and TI released the chart topping song, “Blurred Lines” which discusses the courtship intentions for a woman who is currently in a romantic relationship with another man.  The premise of the song suggests that the woman is a “good girl” but that she wants to get “nasty” (sexually provocative) and be with the relevant suitor.  The concept of blurred lines also extends itself to instructing and education.


Some professors struggle with their own blurred lines as it relates to their role as an educator and friend to their students.  Because of the personal, emotional, institutional, programmatic and sometimes financial investment to students, educators may become attached to their students in a manner in which they may not have anticipated.  This attachment pattern may come in the form of potentially inappropriate boundary violations with students, including hugging, gifts, curricular (e.g. discussion of morally and emotionally charged issues with vulnerable populations) and temporal infractions (e.g., providing one or more students with more time than others), emotional and power infringements, and/or improper communication (e.g., discussing or offering advice on personal issues).

Typically, colleges and universities address traditional boundary violations with policies that may consider various forms of sexual harassment, coercion, and debilitative interpersonal relationships.  Oftentimes though, the instructor-student relationship evolves beyond conventional expectations and teachers find themselves extending their educational relationship beyond assumed parameters within and outside the classroom.  Policies typically don’t address the complexities of emotional and social navigation including dual relationships, codependence, and relational extraction.  Professors are typically left to manage the educational, social, emotional, and cultural assumptions of themselves, their students, and the teacher-student   relationship.

In the light of the potential blurred lines that can develop between teachers and students, I extend an invitation to you to reflect and share about any of the following questions:

  1. How do you build and maintain rapport with your students?
  2. What personal information do you feel comfortable sharing with students?
  3. What personal information do you feel comfortable receiving from your students?
  4. Based upon your experience or what other teachers have shared with you, when do lines become blurred with students?

Here are a few tips that may reduce the likelihood of boundaries becoming blurred:

  1. Use your syllabus—Use your syllabus to set clear boundaries around what will happen academically and professionally over the semester.  Let the students know how to get in contact with you as well as your office hours.  Remain firm about your time but flexible for extenuating circumstances.
  2. Be objective—When students invite you share about your personal life, make sure that what you share is in alignment with course objectives AND that it does not take away from the curriculum.
  3. Be resourceful—When students share sensitive information about their personal lives, offer them a list of campus and off-campus resources for support.
  4. Be honest with yourself about your attraction/feelings—If you find that you are attracted to a student and your attraction becomes a distraction in the classroom, seek counseling or support from a colleague to help you develop and manage appropriate boundaries.

Finally, for amusement, below is a video link to the “oldie but goodie”, “Blurred Lines.”  🙂


Dr. James Wadley is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Counseling and Human Services Program at Lincoln University. He’s a licensed professional counselor and marriage, family, and sexuality therapist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  He is also the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Black Sexuality and Relationships. Finally, he serves as conference chair for Black Americana: Springround Table Series in the U.S. Virgin Islands.   Follow him on Twitter @phdjamesw.