(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Lara, a delightful student of mine, is writing her seminar paper on the topic of
“teachers touching students,” and suggested I write an op-ed about it because it
seems to be a very important and controversial topic of great interest in
Israel. My interest in this topic was heightened with a discussion with Abi
Moskovits, a wonderful high school teacher and friend who said, “As a high
school teacher, I never touch any of my students because the issue is very
complicated and I fear negative consequences and pressure, but I would never
send my children to a teacher who refused to touch them.”
sums up very clearly the dilemma of Israeli teachers. Good teachers know that
touch is an important part of teaching and research strongly indicates that
touching is strongly related to learning. Yet the policy of Israeli schools is
not to touch. Of course when I say touching, I am excluding the hurtful kind;
physically abusive, sexually intended and violations of religious doctrine.
Yitzhak Kadman, executive director of the National Council for the Child says,
“Clearly any physical contact of a sexual nature between teachers and students
is unequivocally forbidden.
It is also clear that the use of violent
physical contact – corporal punishment [or what is mistakenly called ‘an
educational spanking’] is unequivocally forbidden.
“However, it is also
unacceptable that the relationship between teachers and students will be distant
and sterile due to the fear of what is forbidden and that all physical contact
will be forbidden including a teacher’s hand on his student’s shoulder, a pat on
the back in support of a student excelling in sports, and even a hug for a
student in tears.
We should not go from one extreme to the other – from
all permitted to all forbidden, and it is better that those who are not able to
distinguish between the two avoid all contact [or perhaps avoid work in
Twice in my life, I was asked to participate in this
discussion for the record.
The first was when the National Education
Association (NEA), an American teachers’ union, took a firm stand on the issue
in 1993. It came out with the following policy and I was interviewed on national
television to comment.
Teach but don’t touch (NEA Today September 15,
1993 Simpson, Michael) Terrified by the risk of being accused of child
molestation, NEA members nationwide are changing the way they interact with
“We tell teachers, ‘when in doubt, don’t hug, don’t touch them,
because you just don’t know.’” My comment was “If you don’t touch, then don’t
teach. Children can’t learn without touching.”
Of course, my comment was
loved and hated, depending on the critic’s point of view.
Years later, I
testified in court as an expert witness commenting on whether or not it was okay
for a teacher to grab a student by the neck and throw him in a closet. When I
said “No, absolutely not,” the defense attorney asked me why I previously said
touching by teachers is necessary for learning.
In Israel, although the
stated policy is not to touch, there is wide variation among schools and
teachers on enforcement of the edict. When the dangers of inappropriate touch
including inaccurate accusations of teachers, is weighed against the advantage
of positive touching, a change of policy is required. We cannot let the harmful
few force the vast majority of students to lose an important benefit any more
than we can prevent all from driving because a few are dangerous.
my suggestion. It’s not perfect but definitely better. The policy should reflect
reality and make decisions based on the needs of individual schools. Any student
who has been physically abused, or has religious objections, should not be
touched. Touching should never be part of any form of punishment. Teachers
should be protected against accusations without real proof by the school so that
teachers are free to touch appropriately without fear. Touching should be
defined as handshakes, a hug, pat on the back and other supportive choices. Any
parent who does want their child touched should sign a form, with those that
don’t implicitly giving the school permission. Finally, teachers need inschool
training in the appropriate use of touching including how and when touching can
be helpful. Training should also include how to recognize the danger signs for
special circumstances that indicate touching is not appropriate for any
individual student. These may be due to past experiences, emotional issues or
simply strong discomfort at being touched.
The author is the head of the
graduate program in behavior disorders at David Yellin College in Jerusalem and
the author of Discipline With Dignity.