Q: I’m an elementary school teacher, and I find gossip distasteful. Our principal — let’s call him Sam — is a warm and genuine man. He’s very well-liked, and he’s a pretty good leader. But elementary schools are funny places. Everyone is in everybody’s business, for better and for worse. There’s always someone who likes to stir up trouble. Maureen, a 1st-grade teacher, tends to be that person. So I didn’t jump to any conclusions when she told me that several teachers suspect that Sam is having an affair with Christine, one of the other 1st-grade teachers. (Sam is married and Christine is not.) Maureen was pretty agitated because she feels that Sam has been more responsive lately to Christine than to anyone else. Maureen also objects to the affair on moral grounds.
I told Maureen that she should keep her thoughts to herself because she has no proof. But now I, too, think that Sam and Christine are having an affair. I stopped by Sam’s office one evening when I was working late, and I knocked when I saw that his light was on because I wanted to ask him a question. It took a really long time for him to come to the door. He also had to unlock it to let me in, which was incredibly weird and atypical for him. Christine was in there with him and wouldn’t make eye contact with me. I pretended everything was totally normal (I deserve an Oscar for that!) and got out of there as fast as I could. Do I have a legal obligation to report my suspicions to Human Resources? Do I have any ethical obligations to report? Basically, is there any reason I should turn them in, or is it OK to mind my own business?
A: Legally, you don’t have to do anything. Your obligation is to your students. If you believed that your principal or a colleague was grooming or engaging in a sexual relationship with a student, then you’d have to report. But that’s not the case here. That doesn’t mean you can’t report your principal for possibly having an affair with a teacher, but I wouldn’t make that accusation lightly. Principals can be fired or demoted for allegations of sexual misconduct. Even if the relationship is consensual, affairs with subordinates are considered an abuse of power. Your district also could report the principal to the state ethics commission, which could investigate and decide to impose sanctions. They might even take away his license. Leaving aside policy, a false accusation could destroy his marriage or irreparably damage his reputation in the community. The teacher surely would pay a personal and professional cost, too.
That said, there are good reasons districts prohibit these uneven relationships. A teacher might feel pressured to continue an unwanted relationship to protect her job. These kinds of affairs also tend to hurt overall staff morale. As your colleague noted, a principal might treat his romantic partner more favorably than other teachers. Or the reverse could happen. A jilted principal might retaliate when a teacher ends their relationship. There are cases where principals have transferred teachers to less desirable schools or given them poor performance reviews when the affair ended.
You’re in murky territory, however, because you have no hard evidence. In this case, many would view reporting as unethical. You could cause real harm. The middle ground could be a conversation with Sam. Explain that you think he should know that people are speculating about his relationship with Christine. If nothing inappropriate is going on between them, you’ll give him a chance to adjust his behavior and tamp down the rumor mill. One of you should bring the issue to Christine’s attention, too. She deserves to know what people are saying about her so she can react accordingly.
If they are having an affair, you’ll be putting them both on alert. Even if you don’t report your principal, someone else probably will, especially if staff members are resentful and perceive favoritism. Plus, the truth has a way of coming out. By sharing what you’ve heard (along with your own observations), you’ll give him a chance to ask for a transfer or come clean to the school board. One of them might even decide to end the relationship altogether.
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