Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Middle-school followers

I've written here before that I think one thing repelling many from the (primary and secondary) teaching profession is the expectation that every teacher be, well, a saint. I was reminded of this not long ago when listening to some public-radio podcast about the teacher who'd been fired for posting a picture of herself having a glass of wine on vacation in Europe. The incident itself was by then old news, but what was remarkable was how vigorously a guest on the program, in some position of power in this field, was defending the firing. The guest explained that even though the teacher's behavior was legal, as well as uncontroversial to many, teachers must be held to a higher standard, and it's up to communities to decide what that standard might be. If your community abhors alcohol consumption, a thimble of Champagne to mark your 55th birthday crosses the line.

Which is, I think, a deterrent to becoming a teacher, because who among us couldn't point to aspects of our own lives that are entirely legal as well as ethical within our own milieus, that some community somewhere in the country might think made us unfit to influence the youth? I'm not much of a confessional writer, nor does my married life in the rural edges of the suburbs, with the alcohol tolerance of an Ashkenazi sparrow, offer much in the way of scandalization-of-the-youth. But my coffee consumption - well-documented on the Internet - would cross the line for a devout Mormon community. A strict Jewish community probably wouldn't like that I'm an atheist married to a Belgian who, alas, isn't from the Antwerp shtetl. An anti-materialist hippie community might not like my Pinterest account. And so on. (I'm now thinking my tameness is underexploited unless I become a school-teacher, which is not my plan. Oh well.) 

Something along these lines, and yet not, came up in the latest question to Slate's Digital Manners:
[M]y sister-in-law recently requested to follow me on Twitter, but after looking at her Twitter feed, I denied her request.

The majority of her tweets consist of what I feel is inappropriate banter with her much younger brother and his friends, who are all in high school, swearing (sometimes very explicitly) and calling him inappropriate names. She also tweets a lot about how drunk she got and how hung-over she was the next day. The worst part? She’s a middle school science teacher and many of her students follow her tweets.  
This is of course a less clear-cut case than the wine-on-vacation-in-Europe one, and, for what it's worth, I agree with the Slate duo that this teacher's being an idiot. The teacher here is doing several things wrong, most glaringly having a personal Twitter account followed by her middle-school students, who probably shouldn't have Twitter accounts in the first place, let alone have this extracurricular connection with their teacher. Even if the Twitter account were just an informal online meeting-place set up specifically for the class, that in itself would be toeing if not crossing the line.

The stuff about the younger brother is less straightforward. What constitutes "swearing" is subjective (anything exceeding 'gee golly'?); "inappropriate names" even more so. But let's assume this refers to R-rated language. If the brother and friends are high school seniors, and not at the same school she teaches at, it would still seem that this is foolish behavior mostly because she knows her own middle-school students are reading it. If definitive lines here were being crossed - if she's flirting with her brother's 15-year-old friends, or expressing bigotry - presumably the letter-writer would have mentioned it. Even assuming none of that, bad judgement? Probably, but how bad - setting aside the question of middle-school followers - is hard to say.

Now. The drunkenness and hangovers. Whether a dozen drinks were downed, or whether bragging and exaggeration influenced the description, maybe not something to announce online. But even there, what if what's being confessed is a bit too much fun at a friend's wedding? (Remember: anything more than one drink for a woman is officially excessive, and it's entirely possible to get a hangover from even less than that, rumor has it.) It's easy to think of a thousand ways "drunkenness" might be alluded to without anything approaching the level of, say, a bad-boy chef's memoir of hitting rock-bottom. If the letter-writer is an abolitionist, any reference to non-sobriety is "Girls Gone Wild."

Where does this leave us? In a sea of ambiguity. What if whichever postings took place before someone decided to teach middle school? What if the students are following the account using pseudonyms, and the teacher, assuming no one on the site is underage, because the site doesn't allow it, posts away? What if - leaving the specific example of Twitter aside - with enough digging,  students are able to find out that a teacher exists as a person after school and on the weekends? While this teacher seems to fail on enough counts that her job might rightly be in jeopardy, it doesn't seem obvious where the line might fall, or whether a combination of good judgement and discretion would suffice.

I suppose the question we need to ask is whether tameness should be the main trait we look for in teachers. If not - if, past a certain tameness-and-discretion minimum, there are other qualities more important - something is presumably lost under the the-tamer-the-better hiring strategy. You might, if you're lucky, still get some hard-working and talented instructors, but you'd exclude a good many others, and valuable time might be lost to pursuits like making sure dress straps are thick enough.

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