The most recent issue is about technology in education. I'm not a Luddite on this topic, but I also am not a techno-zealot--I need to be convinced that technology is good, useful, and cost-effective before it gets put into our classrooms. Still, most of the stories in that issue were pretty much what you would expect on the topic.
But there was one that caught my attention, and that was about teachers and blogging. In contrast to CTA's usual in-your-face attitude regarding teachers' rights and privileges, this very short article seemed more than a little cautionary. I may be reading between the lines a bit, but since the point was mentioned more than once, I don't think I am: Ed Code Section 44932, which discusses dismissal of teachers on "immoral or unprofessional conduct" grounds, may be interpreted by a court as a reasonable limitation on First Amendment rights regarding blogging.
I have some experience in this matter. In my first year of blogging, I posted about the Breasts, Not Bombs protest in Berkeley, and linked to pictures. A fellow teacher (and mother) chastised me for the link since her son saw it, and threatened me with job-related actions. I responded in my usual manner--derision and attack--and linked to something else I thought she'd enjoy even less. To get the full flavor of this tale, may I suggest that you go to those two links above and read them as well as the comments. I admitted in the comments that the latter post didn't represent a high point in maturity for me, but it still makes me laugh. Also in the comments, though, is a discussion of whether my post was "actionable" in any way. Here we are, two years later, and according to California Educator magazine, we still don't really have an answer.
Their current article gives examples of teachers who were reprimanded or, in the case of new teachers, not rehired, because of content on links that friends had posted on their Myspace pages. The overall tone of the article is somewhat ominous. That struck me as odd, as California is known for having such strong worker protections--and the CTA adds to that with its additional protections for teachers.
I'm reminded of a story about a South Dakota teacher who commented on this blog once. He told about how how he had written a post on his own blog about an accident that took the life of a student--information that everyone knew, and that was published in the local paper. Had anyone else blogged about it, the story would have ended there, but since he was a teacher, the parents came gunning for him. Taking the post down wasn't enough for them, they wanted his job.
He sent me the post via email. It read almost like a local newspaper account--nothing horrid, certainly no privileged information that a teacher might know about a student. But things are different in South Dakota than here in California, and the complaint wasn't dismissed as it should have been. Things didn't go his way, and while he wasn't fired, he left the district.
Recently another local student died in a car wreck, and this (former) teacher has blogged about the situation. He mentions the previous post, long since removed, at the end of his current post. And he's added commentary to this post, because he cares enough about kids to tell them the truth--you're not a hero if you endanger other people in pursuit of your own thrills, and driving too fast can kill you and others. The difference between this current post and the previous one is that he's no longer teaching, so there's no way for the newly-sonless parents to go after him for what he's posted on his blog.
I'm not usually a fan of gray areas. Are there reasonable limitations, in addition to the obvious Privacy Act issues, on what teachers can post on their personal blogs when done outside of school hours and not on school equipment? Are there reasonable limitations on what actions or activities a teacher may participate in outside of school hours? If you believe that these limitations exist, how would you square them with the First Amendment? Do you think we can or should codify these limitations, or should local "community standards" apply--the old "I know it when I see it" standard, which really isn't a standard at all? What standards should we use for "immoral or unprofessional conduct"--is being a whistleblower "unprofessional" because it might make your school or district look bad?
I don't like Swords of Damocles. Let people know the standards under which they're expected to operate. If those standards are unjust, at least they know what the standards are and can (legally) challenge them. But to have no firm standards at all, just amorphous vapors which can instantly materialize out of nowhere and attack unsuspecting teachers--well, that's no way to run a profession.
Update, 9/30/07: I received an email from the teacher whose tale I tell above, and he's given me permission to reproduce his email here. Additionally, he's provided more information in the comments.
Good post, Darren!
And yes, I am currently not teaching high school. You are right: they did not fire me. The administration was completely dismissive of the parents' demand that I be fired. The board wouldn't even let us discuss termination at the appeal before them (and that was o.k. with me!).
Do let me be clear: the board did not fire me, and there was no sort of sneaky secret "forced resignation" or anything like that. In the midst of the whole fracas, they renewed my contract. I left simply because I was offered a better job -- a research assistantship -- that (1) is
much closer to home, (2) allows me to do much of my work on the computer at home, (3) gives me the chance to complete a doctorate, and (4) pays the same as my old job would have. The fact that I no longer work for a school district that doesn't recognize the First Amendment (a position
they didn't make clear until July, two months after I'd quit) is just icing on a really good cake.
You hit two key points right on the head: we need to tell kids the truth (even if they might not listen), and schools need clear standards so teachers and everyone else know where they stand when they exercise their right to free speech. Thanks for the good writing!
There *was* punishment, but he didn't lose his job over it. Had his next door neighbor written that post, that person would have received no such punishment. What's the difference between this man and his next door neighbor? This man was a teacher, that's all.
And that's not a good enough reason.