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Teachers (Still) Behaving Badly on Social Media Sites: #TBT

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What constitutes appropriate conduct when it comes to teacher behavior online? It's an issue that has long inhabited a sort of gray area in school policy—especially with regard to the use of social media by educators. 

Back in 2008 we blogged about a group of seven teachers in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district who were disciplined for posting inappropriate content to their Facebook pages.

One teacher faced firing for listing "teaching chitlins in the ghetto of Charlotte" under her Facebook profile's activities section, and including "drinking" as one of her hobbies.

The post elicited a range of responses about how school administrators should deal with the presence of teachers on social media sites. Some commenters suggested teachers should be prohibited from using social networking all together.

Another commenter wrote, "of course all school employees should be held to a high moral standard, but denying them the basics of 21st century life, while telling them to teach students 21st century skills, is preposterous."

Evelyn McCormack, the social media expert for Southern Westchester Board of Cooperative Education Services, recently told USA Today that "It's not humanly possible to stop people from using social media." But many school districts have taken the initiative to restrict how their teachers use such tools (see, for example, this Education Week piece on New York's social media guidelines). 

And yet as the ubiquity of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter has increased, so too has the number of teachers misbehaving online. Here are just some of the more colorful examples of teacher misconduct over the past few years that we managed to dig up:

  • In 2011, a New York City teacher came under fire for a post she made on Facebook following the drowning death of a student at another New York City school. The post read, "After today, I am thinking the beach sounds like a wonderful idea for my 5th graders! I HATE THEIR GUTS! They are the devils (sic) spawn!" 

    A state trial court and an appellate court ultimately found that the teacher was still fit to teach.

  • In 2013, A special-education teacher in the Torrance Unified School District in Los Angeles was removed from the classroom after she posted on Facebook that she was about to enter a meeting with "crazy parents" to discuss an autistic student whom she described as a "hot mess."

    The teacher also said she was looking forward to "hitting happy hour" after work, the San Jose Mercury News reported

  • Also in 2013, a teacher at Paterson Elementary School in Paterson, N.J., became the subject of national media attention after calling her first grade students "future criminals" in a Facebook post.

    While the post was initially found to be protected by the right to free speech, an appellate panel ultimately ruled that the teacher's conduct wasn't protected by the First Amendment and that her "right to express those comments was outweighed by the district's interest in the efficient operation of its schools."

  • Last school year, a teacher at Newark Memorial High School in Oakland, Calif., was reprimanded after using Twitter to express her desire to stab some of her students and pour hot coffee on them.

  • And this past summer, a Pennsylvania teacher was fired after using her blog to call her students "frightfully dim" and "rat like." She described their parents as "breeding a disgusting brood of insolent, unappreciative, selfish brats."

    A judge upheld her firing, arguing that her speech was not protected because her comments were not a matter of legitimate "public concern"—a standard that is often used in cases of free speech rights of public employees, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

Of course, we also hear lots of inspiring stories about how social media is helping teachers reach their students, communicate with parents, and connect with each other.  Anyone who has participated in an #edchat knows the power of tools like Twitter to open up new worlds for educators. 

But something tells us here at Digital Education that we'll still be seeing troubling teachers-on-social-media headlines five years from now, too. 

Library Intern Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed to this story.


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