When the Teacher Is the Trusted Adult: Should You Give Advice to Students?

Date: May 19th, 2017

Valerie Sedivy

When we provide professional development for teachers on best practices for sexual health education, we always discuss ways to answer questions and talk about the importance of maintaining professional boundaries with students. We coach teachers to tell students to talk with a ‘trusted adult’ when they ask questions of opinion like “Is it OK to go out with someone 5 years older?” or “Is abortion wrong?” We remind them that they can put their job at risk by giving advice, whether it’s given as part of a classroom discussion or a private conversation.

But this can be a dilemma for teachers; they tell us that sometimes they are the only trusted adult in a student’s life, and they often give advice as part of this relationship. They know that by giving the standard “talk to a trusted adult” response, the students who need them the most will probably not seek out any advice at all.

So we also make sure to talk about ways teachers can have meaningful, helpful conversations with their students. We suggest that they share what they know about different viewpoints, without providing their own, and encourage the student to think about these views and decide what is right for them. This helps students build skills to make decisions and develop a sense of autonomy, which will ultimately be more helpful than learning about the teacher’s view on a particular subject.

During one-on-one conversations, we encourage teachers to ask probing questions like:

  • What are some downsides to doing this? What could happen?
  • What do you think your (parent/caregiver) would want you to do? And why would they want you to do that?
  • Do you know any clergy people who might have some advice for you? How could you arrange a conversation with them?
  • What advice would you give your best friend? Why?
  • Are there ways you could make this less risky for yourself? What could you do?

Teachers often tell us that having these strategies on hand helps them feel that they have something to offer the students who need them the most. What about you? Do you think this works (or could work) for you or your colleagues? Have some other ideas? Share them here!

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About the Author

Valerie Sedivy, Ph.D., Healthy Teen Network Senior Program Manager, has over 25 years of experience in the sexual health field and currently supports professionals to provide programs and services that empower youth to thrive. Her experience in multiple roles including program provider, researcher, evaluator, capacity-building assistance provider, resource developer and project manager has instilled a passion for translating research into practical messages and tools for field staff.

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