A recent op-ed in the New York Times raises the issue of teachers being disciplined for saying negative things about their students on Facebook. “When Teachers Talk Out of School” by Jonathan Zimmerman of NYU presents the following examples:
Christine Rubino, a New York City math teacher, posted on Facebook things like: “After today, I’m thinking the beach is a good trip for my class. I hate their guts.” That day a schoolgirl from Harlem drowned on a beach field trip.
A first-grade teacher in Paterson, New Jersey, wrote on her Facebook page that she felt like a “warden” overseeing “future criminals.”
A high-school English teacher in suburban Philadelphia put up a blog entry in which she called her students, “rude, disengaged, lazy whiners.”
All of these teachers was (or will be) disciplined by their school districts, perhaps losing their jobs. Many have objected to this, insisting that it compromises the freedom of speech of the teachers. They should be allowed to say whatever they wish outside of the classroom. That’s their right, or so the argument goes.
Indeed, it is their legal right to speak freely. But Jonathan Zimmerman does not believe teachers should expect to say negative things in public about their students.
All professionals restrict their own speech, after all, reflecting the special purposes and responsibilities of their occupations. A psychologist should not discuss his patients’ darkest secrets on a crowded train, which would violate the trust and confidence they have placed in him. A lawyer should not disparage her clients publicly, because her job is to represent them to the best of her ability. . . . .
Outside school, meanwhile, teachers must also avoid public language that mocks, demeans or disparages the children they instruct. Cruel blog posts about lazy or disobedient students echo the snarky smackdown culture of cable TV talk shows. And they’re anathema to a truly democratic dialogue.
Zimmerman is right, in my opinion. When people post their comments on Facebook, those comments become part of public discourse. It’s not as if a disgruntled teacher complained to her husband in the privacy of their home. Ms. Rubino, for example, was posting something in a place where it could be seen by many and easily made available to everybody.
She has every right to do this. But she does not have every right to keep her job if she does. As a teacher, she is rightly expected to speak and act in ways that help to educate her students, both in the classroom and outside of it. Her public expression of hatred for her students rather impedes her effectiveness as their teacher, don’t you think?
There is a broader point to be made here. This has to do with the impact of digital technology on our lives. We all need to understand that our digital communication is potentially public, if not actually so. When you post something on Facebook, it will be viewed by your “friends,” but it may very well be seen by others. In a couple of clicks, your supposedly private communication can be visible to the world. The same goes for the pictures you send to others, the silly videos you make with your iPhone, and all the other communications that live in digital space. (I wrote this before the Anthony Weiner story broke, by the way. Will we never learn?!)