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Do Teachers Have Right to Private Life?

The media love to play up reports of public school teachers who have been accused of misconduct as if they are the rule. The latest example involves an elementary school teacher in New York City who was fined $7,500 after his arrest for having sex with a prostitute ("Judge: Teacher caught with hooker can sue over $7,500 fine," New York Post, Jan. 14).

The teacher contested the fine, and the court ruled that the district had failed "to offer any legal basis for penalizing a teacher for illegal conduct that has little or no apparent connection with his teaching duties."  The judge went on to note that the incident occured on a Sunday morning, and did not take place anywhere near the school.

The city's Department of Education believes that the fine is appropriate because "teachers are supposed to be role models for their students," and that the teacher's arrest "blotted that image." Moreover, the teacher failed to notify school officials of his arrest as is required.  

Putting aside the last point, I'm not at all surprised by events in New York City.  In 2012, a highly regarded guidance counselor at a high school in the district was fired after 12 years of exemplary work when photos of her in lingerie and bikinis from her early career as a model were seen on the Internet even though she had disclosed her past career when first hired ("Manhattan HS guidance counselor stripped of job over steamy-photo past," New York Post, Oct. 7, 2012).  

I acknowledge that there is a difference between the two cases.  Prostitution is illegal, but sexy modeling is not.  But I think the common thread is that they both allegedly involve "conduct unbecoming" a teacher.  In other words, teachers do not possess the same rights as other employees after the work day is over.  

New York City is hardly alone.  Public school teachers are being fired or suspended for lawful activity across the country when their conduct is deemed inappropriate by school officials or parents ("Teachers under the morality microscope," Los Angeles Times, Apr. 2, 2012).  The rationale is that teachers are supposed to be role models for their students.

I agree that teachers have a responsibility to behave in a professional manner beyond the school campus.  But teachers are not saints, any more than doctors or lawyers.  I think we have to make allowances for their occasional lack of good judgment when they have otherwise been effective in the classroom. We do that for doctors and lawyers.

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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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