Education
10:00 am
Tue April 10, 2012

Should Teachers Be Disciplined For Online Lives?

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Over the past few years, several teachers have been disciplined and even fired for comments or photos posted online. A Philadelphia high school teacher was suspended in February after posting on her blog that students acted like rude, disengaged, lazy whiners. A Georgia teacher was forced to resign in 2009 after a complaint over a Facebook photo that showed her drinking alcohol.

In a piece in the Los Angeles Times, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley argued that blog posts, status updates and photos about legal, private activities should be legal. He says that as public servants, teachers should not be subjected to the transparent conditions of celebrities without any of the benefits.

So should teachers be held to a higher standard? Parents, teachers, where do we draw the line? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, the Miami Herald's Sergio Bustos on Ozzie Guillen and Fidel Castro; and Dan Savage on his new MTV sex advice show "Savage U."

But first, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on the program.

JONATHAN TURLEY: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And Ashley Payne is the Georgia teacher we mentioned earlier. She was forced to resign because of an alleged complaint over a photo of her holding an alcoholic drink. Last year, she took her case to court, and she lost.

TURLEY: Yeah, it's a remarkable disconnect, where you have teachers that teach our children civil liberties, but they themselves are denied in exercising the full range of freedoms that adults have. Most of us really believe that once that whistle blows at the end of the day, then, you know, our life is our own, and we can express ourselves and pursue the things that we want to pursue.

And many of those pursuits really by necessity must be in public. And then when you have the added layer of the new social media and Web engines, it has turned the lives of teachers into this incredibly transparent existence. And the result is that we have teachers being disciplined for things that most of us would consider completely non-problematic.

You know, we had one picture of a teacher who was simply in a shot at a bridesmaid party at a strip joint, and she was sitting at the table. And someone recognized her, and she was disciplined because you shouldn't be in a picture. But it was a bridal party. It's a very classic thing for people to do.

But she was disciplined. Why? Because she was a teacher.

CONAN: Other teachers, though, were disciplined after saying - venting their opinions on gay marriage, for example, and the school board said wait a minute, we have a tolerant classroom. We don't want our students to feel like they are being subjected to any kind of discrimination by a teacher. This creates an atmosphere, once it becomes known, and this is public information, it creates an untenable atmosphere.

TURLEY: That's right, but what really concerns me from a civil liberties standpoint is that often these teachers are not making reference to their schools or to their students. In the case that you referenced, this was a teacher who was selected as Teacher of the Year, had an outstanding status in Florida. And he was exercising a classic First Amendment right.

He had a moral position to put out there. It's one which I disagree with, many people disagree with, but it's in my view wrong to say that teachers can't express those viewpoints. And part of learning for children is that they're going to school in a pluralistic society, you know, where people do have different lifestyles, different values, different views.

It's not a bad thing to tell them that you have to respect the fact that teachers are human beings and individuals, and they have a right to pursue those views and values.

CONAN: Anti-Semitic views? Anti - you can go on and on. Are there any views that you would find would disqualify a teacher if they become public?

TURLEY: Well, there are views. The question that would concern me - racist, anti-Semitic views are good examples. But the question is: How will they impact your work as a teacher? I think that if a teacher is clearly racist and anti-Semitic, it raises a serious question about whether that teacher can effectively teach.

We have seen that problem more often in other public employees. We've had a number of police officers, fire fighters who have been terminated because they belonged to groups that were viewed as racist, even though there was no indication that on the job that they had engaged in any racist conduct.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Christie(ph) - as you can imagine, the lines are full, and people are writing in. As a teacher, I see my responsibility to develop a student's ability to reason, think as an individual. Just as those of you at NPR keep your personal preferences, beliefs from the listening audience, we as teachers have the same responsibility.

Yes, you can have a personal life, but a public life has a greater responsibility governed by the choice one makes professionally. And as she points out, there are all kinds of professions that have ethical standards that say you can't - whatever your beliefs may be, keep them to yourself.

TURLEY: Well, I think that's - I think it's an important value. And as a teacher myself, I respect that. And most teachers really bear a heavy self-imposed burden. I know that as a teacher myself, I'm very careful about what I do in public because I think that I do have an obligation to George Washington University, to my students, to teachers generally.

And most teachers carry that burden, and they shoulder it well. But the question is where you draw the line. And teachers now have this ambiguous standard, which is often similar to sort of morality clauses, that anything that a parent might object to in your life can be the basis of discipline.

I think that goes too far. I think it's bizarre that a teacher cannot be photographed holding a glass of wine. I think it's bizarre that a teacher cannot blog about religious issues like the views on homosexuality. That's not what they signed up for. They signed up to teach our children, and they do so at low pay and long hours. They should be allowed to be full citizens.

I never saw, as a teacher, any clause that says you now shall live in a fishbowl existence, and you will live according to the moral dictates of every parent in your school district.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Carl(ph), Carl with us from Denver.

CARL: Hi, yes, thanks for taking my call. I was a teacher, and I - because of the nature of my program, I ended up feeling forced to - like I had to create a MySpace account and then a Facebook account because there was basically no other way to communicate with the kids. We didn't meet every day. So to organize things like community service projects or choose a T-shirt design, there was just no other way. Kids don't use email, and they don't phone, they just text and Facebook.

So I had no choice, I felt. But then, you know, friends would find me, and they would friend me, and at first without thinking about it, I, you know, would accept. And then I felt the urge to say, hey, you know what? I really need to do laundry. And then I realized, well, maybe my kids don't need to know about that.

So I ended up, again, having feeling no choice, I created a second Facebook account for actual friends, and that actually also caused me some concern. I felt maybe I was doing un - like two-faced or, you know, hiding a part of my life. You know, it's a very complicated thing, and it's true, I did hold myself to these standards, but they're almost - I mean, it's really, it can be very difficult to actually try to live them. And maybe it's partly why I ended up leaving the profession.

CONAN: And ended up leaving the profession. So did - was there ever any conflict that you ran into?

CARL: Well, not with my bosses, who were pretty hands-off, but there were - it was - there would be an issue come up sometimes. Like, I think I posted something, and an old, an ex-student of mine said too much information. He just didn't want to hear about - oh, yeah, hmm, that's a - there's a funny line there, and some kids will be interested in your private life, and some people would prefer to think that you have no private life.

Actually, I discussed it in great depth with my - the kids in the program, and what would it be like to see me as a friend on Facebook. You know, is it weird to have an adult as a friend on Facebook? You know, do any of your other teachers do this? You know, and worked it out in great detail and just so they could foresee, you know, all the issues that might come up.

CONAN: All right, Carl.

CARL: And they were generally OK with it, so - and actually that goes both ways, too. They might feel inhibited from posting about their crazy night out, you know, with underage drinking, knowing that I was their friend.

CONAN: Yeah, Carl, thanks very much for the call, I appreciate it.

CARL: You're welcome, bye-bye. Elizabeth Meyer is an assistant professor in the School of Education at California Polytechnic State University. She joins us from her office in San Luis Obispo. Nice to have you with us today.

ELIZABETH MEYER: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And I know you discuss these types of issues with your students who are studying to become educators. So where do you tell them that we ought to draw the line?

MEYER: Well, I tell them it's important to be role models, and especially since we're living in such a wired society, teaching students 21st century skills includes basic media literacy and understanding the scope and the impact of anything that you post online, whether you think it's appropriate or not.

You need to consider that anything you do publicly, you're always a teacher. And though I recognize and agree with several of Mr. Turley's points about being able to engage in public discourse and being able to evaluate and understand kind of various opinions and behaviors, depending on the age of the children you teach, children don't have the ability to distinguish when you're being a teacher and when you're being a private citizen.

And so they think everything you say and do is you as a teacher. And when there's that nexus between anything that you say and do and how it impacts the student experience in your classroom - for example, a teacher saying that they think that you're lazy and a bunch of whiners and future criminals - there's research that shows that teacher expectations have a direct impact on student engagement and performance.

And so that is going to have a direct impact on students' ability to engage and participate and have a full access to education. And schools are public, compulsory, and so this is a place we're requiring students to show up every day. And therefore I think it is essential that teachers are held to somewhat of a higher standard. And so I do teach them those media literacy skills of either setting up two accounts or using a pseudonym for your private life and your personal friends and using a different, you know, Mr. or Ms. So-and-So from this school for your interactions with your students and your families.

We do need to recognize the impact of our decisions as professionals.

CONAN: Here's an email reminding us that these lines do fluctuate over time, this from Caroline(ph) in Anchorage. When my mother became a teacher in 1928, women needed to be single and could not be seen in an ice cream parlor without getting into trouble. So these things do change over time. I think the ice cream parlor is probably pretty safe, at least most places.

Jonathan Turley is with us, he's a professor of public interest law at George Washington University. Elizabeth Meyer you just heard, assistant professor in the School of Education at California Polytechnic Institute University, and she writes the gender and schooling blog for Psychology Today.

Teachers, parents, where do we draw the line? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about teachers disciplined, even fired, for posting on Facebook and other sites. Some argue they have a right to their private lives outside the classroom. Others say teachers bear an added burden: they're role models for children and should be held accountable for what they post online.

So should teachers be held to a higher standard? Where do we draw the line? Parents, teacher, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest, Jonathan Turley, public interest law professor at George Washington University. His op-ed in the Los Angeles Times was titled "Teachers Under the Morality Microscope. And Elizabeth Meyer, assistant professor in the School of Education at California Polytechnic State University. She writes the gender and schooling blog for Psychology Today. We have links to both of their pieces at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's get a caller in. This is Phoebe and Phoebe with us from Charlottesville in Virginia.

PHOEBE: Hi, thank you for taking my call. I'm currently an education student who's about to do my student teaching in the fall, and I've already had experience in the classroom where I've had students ask me for my Facebook name so that they could find me and be my friend, which I've never given.

But I'd like to comment on the fact that, for example, I have a set of 1872 rules for teachers in front of me, and it says women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed. So obviously our ideas over time have changed. And I really think our private lives should be our private lives.

That teacher in Georgia got dismissed because she was on vacation, and she had pictures of her drinking on vacation in Europe, and that was a private Facebook account. So I really, I find it very offensive and it's somewhat fearful, like, I'm somewhat fearful of going into a profession that is demonizing our private lives, which are not illegal.

I mean, if there was actually illegal conduct going on, I understand, but drinking a glass of wine at dinner is not illegal, and that should not be persecuted.

CONAN: Elizabeth Meyer, she's got a point. This is perfectly legal activity, big deal.

MEYER: Well, I think legal behavior should be the bare minimum. We're talking about teachers, and so we really need to be talking about ethical and moral standards and that - excuse me - the legality of an issue shouldn't decide whether we want our teachers modeling this behavior, especially in public forums.

And so yes, I agree, a teacher should not be disciplined for having a glass of wine on vacation, but the problem is that teachers need to be aware that when you're tagged in photos, when you have public Facebook accounts, when you post an image, anybody can download it and then email it and circulate it. So we need to have teacher who are media-savvy, media-literate so they can model and then appropriately teach those skills to our students because we're worried about issues of cyber-bullying and sexting and all these other issues that impact students' lives.

So teachers need to be able to effectively and appropriately and professionally model those skills so our students learn how to navigate these public-private boundaries in this new mediated world.

CONAN: Jonathan...

PHOEBE: I fully agree with you, but these people who are being persecuted didn't do cyber-bullying, sexting or any kind of - what they did wasn't illegal. What they did, some parent didn't like in the neighborhoods that they lived in. Someone didn't like the fact that she drank on her vacation in Europe and so got upset about it and went to the school board about it. That's the problem that I am pointing out.

And these are public - excuse me, they are public education institutions that are dictated by the surrounding area. So if you're in a surrounding area that's, you know, highly conservative or highly liberal, you're going to have your base dictate what is, quote-unquote, "morally acceptable," and that is the problem.

CONAN: And you might get into trouble if you move to another district, but Jonathan Turley, Phoebe sounds like she might have been one of your students.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TURLEY: Well, I've enjoyed listening to her because - she's going to be a wonderful teacher...

PHOEBE: Thank you.

TURLEY: ...and I think that there is an interesting comparison between Phoebe, who is going into teaching, and thank God she is, because I think that she has a lot to offer, and Carl, who left teaching.

Carl is describing what is called, in constitutional law, a chilling effect. That is, he was living under the chilling effect of uncertainty, and Phoebe is concerned about that, as well. I've had teachers come to me and tell me after my column ran, these are - one of them is a teacher of my own, one of my four kids and came up and said: I don't let people take pictures of me at parties.

So if there's a camera at a party, I go up and say please don't take my picture because I'm afraid it'll end up on Facebook, and I'll get fired. And the point is that these teachers feel like they live celebrity lives without any of the benefits. So there's like parental paparazzi out there. And it's not enough to use fake names because you can end up on someone else's Facebook, and someone can see the picture, and that is exactly what has happened.

I also - I agree with much of what Professor Meyer says. I think we both value teaching in the same way. But I don't want teachers to instill this lesson with students. I don't want them to show students how you need to be furtive, you need to be careful about what you expose. That's part of that chilling effect, and we're reinforcing it not just with the teachers but with the students. And that really concerns me.

And then finally, yes, it's true teachers should strive for a standard beyond what is legal, but once you cross that Rubicon, once you say, well, you can get fired for something that is legal, what is the standard? And I think Phoebe's absolutely correct, that many of these people are being nailed by one or two parents who are strongly objecting, and the response is very defensive in terms of the institution by principals. They tend to cut off the teacher.

PHOEBE: And can I just say one last thing, and then I'll let it go? I just think this creates a culture of fear, and that's not what we're trying to - I don't think that public education in the United States stands for that. But this new, growing, I guess, paradigmatic thinking creates a culture of fear, and I don't want to teach that to my students.

CONAN: Elizabeth Meyer - thanks very much, Phoebe, appreciate it - but Elizabeth Meyer, I wondered if you wanted to respond.

MEYER: Well, I don't think it's creating a culture of fear, and I think Phoebe does make a very good point about the regional variations of this. So it really does come down to school leadership issues that it does vary widely based on your principal, based on your school board.

And so what I think the main lesson is that teachers, you need to know your community, and you need to decide if that's the type of community you want to continue being an active participant in. If that community doesn't reflect your values and the lessons you want to impact on your students, then you need to make some very strategic choices.

I think the question about being furtive of your lives online, I don't think that's what the lesson is. I think it's about being circumspect. It's about thinking twice before you click because you need to recognize the larger audience that you have. Even if somebody else posts an image of you, you can at least demonstrate that you have taken all reasonable measures to ensure that you have a public persona that properly upholds the vision and the mission and the values of your school.

And that is an important lesson that our students need to understand, to be circumspect, to make careful decisions and to take appropriate precautions to make sure the image you present is the image you're proud to stand behind.

CONAN: Here's an email from Kerry(ph), who makes a point we've gotten from several emailers and callers: My husband has been an elementary school teacher for a district in Southern Arizona for 14 years. He makes less than $40,000 a year and is continually lacking necessary supplies. Should teachers be held to a high standard when being provided the bare minimum? Hmm, something seems to be off here.

But Jonathan Turley, if this is a legal issue, clearly it's an issue for the courts. Is this in court?

TURLEY: Well, unfortunately, courts give a great deal of deference to school districts. But there have been some successful challenges where these First Amendment and associational rights have been raised. I think there should be more challenges. I've been encouraging teachers to stand by their rights.

I mean, the problem - and I should say that it's a problem. Where I tend to have a different view from Professor Meyer is that I understand her point that teachers need to understand the burden, the standards. But what - but maybe because I'm coming at this from the legal academy, what I think they should also understand is what their rights are.

There's no clear definition or standard given to teachers of what are their rights. What can they structure their life around? And the result is this chilling effect where one of my son's teachers says I won't let anyone take a picture of me at a party.

And that's what happens when you lack a standard where we don't tell the teachers what their rights are. And I have to tell you, I think that's by design. Nobody wants to tell them what their rights are because we want them to be, frankly, intimidated.

CONAN: Well, Elizabeth Meyer, it seems to me you're not talking about rights in your instruction to teachers but rather what you regard as their obligations.

MEYER: Well, I talk about both legal and ethical responsibilities because I do think it's very important that teachers are legally literate as well as critically literate because I do advocate for teachers to take a strong stand and to engage in public discourse around difficult issues because that's where learning happens.

But I don't think drinking a glass of wine or having the right to post a picture of yourself at a bridal shower is really the type of expression that we are worried about protecting. I talk about those issues specifically when we're talking about issues of religion and expression and sexual orientation and diversity and multiculturalism, and I have, you know, blogged about really important issues when teachers have taken a stand and then experienced backlash.

But then they usually get support from their union or their local community, and their legal literacy and the critical literacy of their students and their communities is amplified through that process. So I agree, teachers do need to have greater legal literacy, as well as media literacy and critical literacy skills.

But I don't think that that - really we need to worry about whether they're being photographed with a glass of wine, not the school board leadership issue. And yes, there are some very conservative, very reactionary professionals in those positions of power, and unfortunately they misinterpret and they misapply. And therefore, teachers need to be somewhat circumspect, based on the communities in which they live and work.

CONAN: Thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

MEYER: Thank you.

CONAN: Elizabeth Meyer, professor in secondary education at California Polytechnic State University. She writes the Gender and Schooling blog for Psychology Today. You can find a link to her piece about the limits of teacher expression on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Jonathan Turley's piece from the Los Angeles Times, also available at that same site. He joined us here in Studio 3A. He's a professor of public interest law at George Washington University. Thanks very much for your time today.

TURLEY: Thank you, Neal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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