He had wavy blond hair. Blue-green eyes. A dimpled smile. And a knack for pronouncing impressive words, like “hypothesis.”
His name was Mr. Gemeinhart, and he was Lisa Daily’s fourth-grade teacher.
“We just thought he was the most handsome thing on two feet,” says Daily, who’s 39 and lives in Sarasota, Fla. Even 30 years later, she can’t talk about him without getting giddy. “I’m sitting here talking and I’m giggling, I’m blushing and I’m not sure why. I’m a grown-up!”
No matter how far removed you are from your school days, those loopy feelings associated with a teacher crush can stick with you long into adulthood, psychologists say. That’s because the years between late elementary school and early high school — when teacher crushes are most likely to happen — are when kids are most impressionable.
“You can probably remember a breakup with a boyfriend from middle school,” says Vivian K. Friedman, a professor of child and adolescent psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Teacher crushes are often of the same intensity.”
Stories of inappropriate student-teacher relationships are attention grabbers, but most of the time, a teacher crush is innocent. A crush can even help the learning process because the student is likely hanging on the teacher’s every word. It can drive those students to work a little harder in class in an attempt to impress the teacher, says Thomas Cottle, a clinical psychologist and professor of education at Boston University.
Crazy about teacher
“A classroom where the kids are really crazy about their teacher — that’s a terrific classroom,” Cottle says. “When stress is down, you learn better. When you’re feeling good, learning is enhanced, memory is enhanced.”
Daily put her adoration of Mr. G toward a creative purpose: “The Gemeinhart Chronicles,” a series of short stories starring her beloved teacher.
“There were a lot of instances of horseback riding,” recalls Daily, whose first novel will be published early next year. “He’d ride up to the school on horseback and save one of us.”
Almost every day at recess that year, Daily and a group of similarly smitten girls would gather under the slide on the playground, and Daily would read another chapter of Mr. G’s adventures. They had moved the activity outdoors after their protagonist nearly caught them passing the notebook in his class.
But chances are, Mr. G already knew the girls were crushing on him. It’s not hard to pick out a love-struck student, says Jeff Bigler, a high-school chemistry teacher in the Boston area.
“If a kid ever asks a teacher, ‘Are you married?’ that’s a heads up — watch out!,” Bigler jokes. He chooses to feign ignorance when he can tell a student has a crush. “I just totally ignore any of the crush aspect of it. I just pretend I’m totally oblivious to it.”
Bigler remembers two girls he taught for two years — bright girls who were doing fine in his class and held good grades. Still, they kept going in for extra help after school from Mr. Bigler. The crush might have been what drew them into those after-school study sessions, but it ended up boosting their grades.
Looking for a role model
Often, rather than anything romantic or sexual, a teacher crush is about a student searching for a role model, Bigler says. One of the girls would often come by to chat after school or between classes, and Bigler thought she might have just needed someone to talk to.
“Kids have crushes on actors, sports figures, pretty much anyone that can be a role model in everyday life,” Bigler says. “I totally would not want to encourage any kind of a crush. But in a lot of ways, I’d almost rather have kids have thoughts like, “Gee, my teacher is wonderful.”
As Ricky Grove grew up in Arizona in the ’50s, he didn’t have many adults in his life he could count on — until he started the third grade and met the beehived, impeccably dressed Ms. Nyman.
“Ms. Nyman was the first adult that I had met that I felt I could really trust,” says Grove, who’s now 52 and lives in North Hollywood, Calif. “I listened to her more than any other adult that I had met at that point.”
Looking back, Grove realizes that she probably knew he adored her. But she took his rapt attention toward her and pointed it toward subjects she knew he’d love. “She passed on a love of learning and a love of books to me,” Grove says.
Experts assure parents that most of the time, a teacher crush is a positive thing. But parents should pay attention to the stories their child brings home from school. If they've suddenly stopped all chatter regarding their teacher or they say their teacher's making them uncomfortable, that can be a warning sign that the student-teacher relationship may have taken an inappropriate turn, experts say.
If parents suspect something is wrong, they should probe further into the situation; a meeting with the teacher, or even an administrator, may be in order. But don’t worry about a kid who comes home bubbling with cheerful information about what their teacher said and did that day.
“This is not a negative thing, it can be part of the child’s world that’s separate from the parent,” Friedman says. Because the school-age years are a time of gaining gradual independence, parents should, generally, leave the situation alone.
Daily, the budding novelist, would never have mentioned the crush to her parents as a fourth-grader, but she laughed about it with her mom years later when a college assignment brought the memory back. When she was 19, she had to observe an elementary school classroom for a psychology course. She visited her old elementary school — and ran into Mr. Gemeinhart.
His blond hair had started to thin. Wrinkles had formed around his (still stunning) eyes. He seemed a little shorter, a little heavier and altogether less impressive than the teacher she remembered adoring. But his current students didn’t seem to agree.
She peeked in his classroom and saw another generation of fourth-grade girls enraptured by Mr. Gemeinhart’s charm. As she watched them, she remembered her happy year in Mr. G’s class and thought, “I’ve been there, girl.”