Saturday, April 2, 2011

Teachers, Check Your Freedoms at the Door

Teacher, You Will Behave! (Image by Tied & Quiet)
A first-grade teacher in Paterson, N.J., was suspended with pay last week for saying on her Facebook page that she felt like a warden overseeing future criminals. She was disciplined after parents complained to the school and starting asking that their kids be removed from her class, the NY Times reported today.

The teacher has not yet commented on the incident. However, her attorney indicated that administrators who care about kids focus on what goes on in the classroom rather than policing their employee’s private comments. My guess is that they never would have known about the Facebook comments had the parents not complained. If there is one thing that will bring administrators to their knees quickly it is being pestered by parents.

This is now the second time in the last few months that a teacher has been suspended for making negatives comments about their students on the internet. A teacher was also fired from Imagine Prep charter school in Los Angeles for having political bumper stickers on her car and another California teacher was recently sued by a student for calling creationism “superstitious nonsense.”

Workers do not have free speech on the job. In fact, we lose many of our civil liberties in the workplace. Bosses can (and routinely do) spy on employees, monitor computer keystrokes, and discipline them for saying things that they do not like (or that students complain about). In fact, teachers are often disciplined for saying things at school that are considered “inappropriate” or “unprofessional,”  sometimes based entirely on hearsay or a single student’s accusations.

The problem is that the Paterson teacher’s comments were made outside of work, where the school should not have any jurisdiction. One could certainly make a good case that her comments showed poor judgment or were unprofessional, but the school cannot and should not attempt to control it punitively. Allowing schools to punish employees for their behavior off campus harkens back to the days when teachers had to be men, or young single females. Getting married or pregnant was grounds for termination. Such reasoning would justify firing a teacher for being drunk in public nowhere near school, or for going to a gay bar outside of work hours, or for attending an anti-war rally. It would also justify firing teachers for writing blog posts, editorials or articles critical of their schools, districts or education policy in general.


  1. Well said. This is why union due process protections matter for all faculty. I think you'd be interested in Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute Books 2010). We need to reclaim our voices. Good teachers are not robots. Teaching work is a messy enterprise, and there are way too many unhealthy silences already.

  2. Well, maybe the school should not have punished her. But what does a school do when it suddenly has 15-20 parents trying to yank their kids out of her class because they're really bothered that the classroom is obviously some sort of prison with a warden for a teacher? That would certainly make me think that I want my kids elsewhere- probably not even at that school.
    If it affects the school as a whole, then the comments are probably a problem.
    Think how many employees are fired when they talk about how much they loathe their work, their boss or, worse, the customers and everybody KNOWS who they are and how they are employed?
    How should this be handled?

  3. My guess is that possibly that she had teachers spy on her, more than parents looking up her FB page. Unless her FB page was completely open and not secure, then there is no real reason why the parents would have access to her comments and quotes. I have heard this situation in many cases where it is usually a fellow colleague in the same school that 'snitches' on the teacher.
    I know this happened to someone I know in NYC with a photograph that she took of a bulletin board. All she had was an investigation that is still pending from over a year.

  4. Circe, you bring up an excellent point.

    Administrators have the unenviable responsibility of having to balance the needs of students, teachers, parents and superintendents. And, unfortunately, they often make decisions that are most expedient to them (e.g., buckle to cranky parents to get them off their backs; or buckle to superintendents, so they can keep their jobs).

    While the teacher's comments were disrespectful to her students and not particularly wise to put into print, it is not clear that she is a bad teacher, or a tyrant, or that things are in any way out of control in her classroom.

    The fact of the matter is that most teachers have times when their students' behavior becomes challenging or when they feel like they are putting more energy into controlling behavior than they are into their true passion: teaching. This is particularly the case for inexperienced teachers (although there are plenty of veterans who still don't have a handle on discipline).

    Administrators and peers need to be aware of when a teacher is struggling with classroom management issues and be able to provide non-punitive support or professional development early, before the teacher becomes overwhelmed. Indeed, this is probably one of the main reasons for the high attrition rate for young teachers.

    As far as her Facebook page, the administrator could have talked with her about it, explained how it was affecting parents, and, who knows, maybe she would have removed the content and apologized to parents on her own. Sometimes it's okay (necessary) for bosses to take a hit (e.g., transfer a few students, run interference with a few upset parents) for the sake of doing what's right (e.g., not punishing someone for free speech on their own private time).

  5. Thanks Tracie. This hadn't occurred to me, but certainly makes sense. It's really sad to think there are so many turncoats among us. As a union organizer, I continue to be challenged by this problem.

  6. Thanks Jo. I appreciate the support. Sorry I missed you when you were in S.F. I look forward to reading your book.

  7. admittedly she was wrong to say that, but it is quite funny

  8. Teachers should be allowed a private life and the same right to free speech without abuse as everyone. Sigh. Teachers need help to handle those little furture crims, not fired for saying the truth.