Tech Trends: Should Teachers Be Free to Say Negative Things About Their Students on Facebook?

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?!)

  • http://profiles.google.com/cgteira Sheila Lagrand

    In general, I think publicly dissing anybody is at best inappropriate.

    More particularly regarding teachers: As a student, I can’t imagine remaining motivated after learning my teacher felt that way.

    As a parent, I can’t imagine myself permitting my child to remain in the classroom with a teacher who publicly professed such a viewpoint.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Sheila, for your comment.

  • Evan

    Mark,

    Ah, yes, the Cherished Freedom of Free Speech. But unless the Constitution makes provision for that particular sort of speech, there may be consequences. Slander and libel laws are but one example.

    To be brief, students are under the authority of their teachers, and the teachers’ ability to cause grief to a student, especially the youngest, is formidable. That authority carries a great deal of responsibility. Openly-stated contempt (such as you cited) also changes the dynamic of the relationship. Can you imagine going to counsel with your pastor after he had stated on Facebook that he loathed his congregation?

    If it would not be appropriate a teacher to say to an assembly of students and their parents (“I hate your children’s guts” comes to mind) then it does not belong anywhere else. And if you make public comments about how much you hate your employer and your job, it is unlikely your employer will still want you to come to work. It is “Free Speech” in the sense there is no criminal sanction from the government, but there could be other consequences.

    Evan

  • Evan

    Mark,

    Ah, yes, the Cherished Freedom of Free Speech. But unless the Constitution makes provision for that particular sort of speech, there may be consequences. Slander and libel laws are but one example.

    To be brief, students are under the authority of their teachers, and the teachers’ ability to cause grief to a student, especially the youngest, is formidable. That authority carries a great deal of responsibility. Openly-stated contempt (such as you cited) also changes the dynamic of the relationship. Can you imagine going to counsel with your pastor after he had stated on Facebook that he loathed his congregation?

    If it would not be appropriate a teacher to say to an assembly of students and their parents (“I hate your children’s guts” comes to mind) then it does not belong anywhere else. And if you make public comments about how much you hate your employer and your job, it is unlikely your employer will still want you to come to work. It is “Free Speech” in the sense there is no criminal sanction from the government, but there could be other consequences.

    Evan

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Evan. Right on.

  • Ann P.

    I think you may be underestimating the amount of stress our teachers are under and overestimating the normal restrictions on their speech.  I have a number of friends who are teachers and they are allowed to talk about their students as long as they do not identify them by name.  So we may be asked to pray for a student who has lost a parent in a car accident, or for one who is really struggling with behavior problems.  

    More apropos to this discussion was the situation of a friend who teaches in a private high school.  She normally likes her job but this year there were a number of difficult students in one or two of her classes.  These students had no respect for her authority, and were engaged in cheating and bullying.  Toward the end of the year,they actually hacked her facebook account, that had been set to private, and changed the settings to public and proceeded to get her in trouble.  Mind you, my friend had kept to the restriction and mentioned no names, so basically she was simply reprimanded and asked to set everything to private.  

    My friend however, felt violated.  Here she was, trying to cope with the year from h…, by sharing only enough to try to get some perspective from close friends and family, so she would be less likely to blow up at the kids in class.  And instead of the administration supporting her when the kid refused to do as he was told, she got in trouble.  Where do you draw the line, if someone is sharing the exact same types of information that they might share in any other setting?

  • Anonymous

    I have a pretty good idea of the stress teachers are under. My sister and brother-in-law are both teachers, and I have had many teachers as friends. The vast majority of teachers find appropriate ways to deal with their stress and frustrations, which does not include making their thoughts about students public. They find truly private places, like personal conversations with trusted friends, to unload. This is fine. But it would not be fine if a teacher were to have such a conversation in a crowded place where he or she could be overheard.


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