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Holding Teachers to Higher Standard Than Officers

"A Few Good Men," the movie starring Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise, was responsible for my assumption that officers in the military had to abide by the most stringent rules regarding their conduct. It prompted me to look up Article 133 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice: "Any commissioned officer, cadet, or midshipman who is convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman shall be punished as a court-martial may direct." The conduct refers to behavior in an official capacity or to behavior in a private capacity that seriously compromises one's standing as an officer.

It's the latter clause that leads me to conclude that public school teachers are held to a higher standard. I say that because in the last few years they have been suspended or fired for engaging in perfectly lawful activities during off-work hours ("Teachers under the morality microscope," Los Angeles Times, Apr. 2). These include such things as teachers blogging about students who are "rude, disengaged, lazy whiners," posting a photo while holding a drink on Facebook, and being photographed next to a stripper at a bridal shower.

None of these "offenses" were committed by teachers in their official capacities, nor did they compromise the teachers' standing as a professional. In fact, I maintain that the behaviors engaged in by teachers in their private lives show that they are only human. Nevertheless, they were actionable because they were deemed to violate the morals of certain parents in their respective school districts. In contrast, Article 133 of the UCMJ does not concern itself with local community standards. It includes such things as making a false official statement, and using defamatory language to another officer in that officer's presence.

What is most disturbing is that public school teachers are already subjected to unprecedented criticism today. They can't seem to do anything praiseworthy. If teachers can't let their hair down in their free time without fear of being suspended or fired, it's little wonder that the burnout rate is so high. Mental health professionals have long emphasized the importance of catharsis as a way of coping with compassion fatigue ("Informed Patient: Helping Nurses Cope With Compassion Fatigue," The Wall Street Journal," Jan. 3).

Let's not minimize the implications. The results of the annual MetLife Survey of the American Teacher that were released in March found that roughly one in three teachers said they were likely to quit the profession in the next five years ("Teacher Survey Shows Morale Is at a Low Point," The New York Times, Mar. 7). Just three years ago, the rate was one in four. Expecting teachers to live their lives by rules that don't apply to officers in the military is bound to accelerate the exodus.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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