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Do Teachers Get to Have Dignity?

Variations on this story probably happen far more often than reported in the press: Teacher in South Carolina leaves her cell phone on her desk, while doing hall duty between classes. Kid picks up her phone, scrolls through her photos--and hits the jackpot. Mrs. Teacher has a nude photo of herself (a selfie-gift for her husband on Valentine's Day) on her phone. Kid sends it to all his pals, then boasts about it--including some highly inappropriate threats to the teacher about her "day of reckoning."

Here's where the story gets weird. Mrs. Teacher's superintendent blames her, for not having control over her personal property, expressing distaste for the inappropriate material on her phone. She is urged by school officials to resign. The superintendent, who sounds like a caricature of good ol' boy administrators familiar to those of us who were in the classroom in the 20th century, even suggests that she may have "corrupted" the 16-year-old who stole her phone. Really.

Mitch Albom has an excellent column on the incident:

If a 16-year-old knows how to that rapidly find someone else's photos on someone else's phone, I'm pretty sure he has found access to a lot worse.

Finally, on Friday, the teen was charged with violating the state's computer crime act and aggravated voyeurism. You'd think, if authorities came to that conclusion in less than a week, the school might have seen it coming and not acted as if this was so completely the teacher's fault.

Instead, you have the superintendent's statement to the media: "One error ... by a teacher, has and will affect the lives of many."

A teacher error? That's how you sum it up?

You do in a state where teachers feel powerless and unprotected. And a time when teachers are expected to work miracles on students' "character"--evidently overcoming whoever trained that kid to think browsing through a teacher's phone is hilarious, and idle threats are no big deal.

Albom's column gets the storyline and the blame question right--but he expresses astonishment that the teacher essentially forgives the boy for being immature and dopey. The teacher also says she does not want to return to teach at the school, even if a student-led petition effort to get her job back is successful.

Albom is missing some pieces here. Teachers forgive students for bad choices all the time. It's part of the job--if we never took the time to help students think through their mental errors and behavior lapses, not much would happen in classrooms. This principle holds true from kindergarten to graduation: kids do dumb things. Sometimes, they do awful things. Call 'em out, then move on.

If the teacher's phone had been storing the secret password to the school's online grading program, or the answers to an upcoming quiz--would the superintendent have been so quick to defend the student? This is a not really a story about a teacher whose phone was pinched, see-- it's a story about a teacher who had a deeply personal and overtly sexual item on her phone.

Which was her right, as a law-abiding citizen. Just as it was Erin Andrews' right to expect privacy when taking a shower at the Nashville Marriott. In a sense, a teacher is a public person, with an audience of a few hundred students, parents and colleagues, rather than millions of viewers.  Like a sportscaster, a teacher's professional reputation is built on her public face, the respect built around her visible work and expertise. She has a right to draw a line between her private life, and her public persona.

The teacher did nothing wrong. She may have been careless, but raise your hand if you've never been careless at work. Her problem was in trusting her students to behave like respectful adults, in a season when they don't have many role models for that on the daily news. If she's guilty of high expectations for students' behavior, then I'm guilty too--perhaps most teachers are. It's how we get through the day.

It's not easy to be a teacher and maintain a private life, entirely separate from your career. I know plenty of teachers who live and shop and go out on Saturday nights in towns far away from the place where they teach, to maintain that wall of discretion.

In the same way that Erin Andrews has lost something that will never be replaced by millions of dollars, the teacher in South Carolina has had her personal dignity pilfered, for reasons having nothing to do with her work performance. I'm not surprised she doesn't want to go back to a school where the adults have less integrity than the children.

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