If you need further evidence of the coarsening of our culture, then read Ian Shapira's piece in Monday's Washington Post. The latest fad among some young teachers--meaning those in their 20s--is to post profiles on social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace. What's wrong with that, you might say? Nothing, if one's intent is to post professional or responsible private information (resume, education background, hobbies, favorite movies, music ... etc.). The problem is that many teachers are using the sites, which are marketed heavily toward immature teens, to post outrageous comments or indecent personal acts. In other words, they are acting very much like the immature, sex-obsessed, alcohol-guzzling and profanity-spouting students many of them are supposed to be teaching--and serving as role models for.
Mr. Shapira writes that the epidemic of improper postings is now causing serious concerns among principals, parents, and other fellow teachers trying to maintain basic standards of civilized decency in the classroom. Take the case of Stephen Murmer, a Richmond area high school art teacher, who had to be fired last year for painting canvasses--I am not making this up--with his buttocks in images on You Tube.
Then there is Erin Jane Webster, a 22-year-old long-term substitute teacher in Prince William County, Maryland, who has posted this witticism on her personal profile page: "you're a retard, but i love you." There is one little problem: Ms. Webster teaches students with learning disabilities. Perhaps it never occurred to her that the use of the term "retard" might be considered derogatory and deeply offensive by many of her students and their parents. But there's more. If you click on the photos section of her profile, you can see Ms. Webster lying on her back, eyes closed, with a bottle of Jose Cuervo tequila beside her. In another photo, there's a shot of two young male friends flashing their middle fingers. Talk about setting a mature example for the students in Prince William.
But my favorite example of teachers gone wild is that of Alina Espinosa, a teacher at Clopper Mill Elementary School in Montgomery County, Maryland. Ms. Espinosa is proud of being a promiscuous, bisexual swinger--so much so that she posted on her Facebook page: "I only have two feelings: hunger and lust. Also, I slept with a hooker. Be jealous. I like to go onto Jdate [an online dating service for Jewish people] and get straight guys to agree to sleep with me."
When asked whether she considered the impact her revelations might have on kids in the classroom, Espinosa said: "I never thought about parents and kids [seeing it] before. That's all I'm going to say."
Leaving aside that Ms. Espinosa probably has a secret death wish (sleeping around with anonymous men and prostitutes is almost a sure way to contract a dangerous sexually-transmitted disease like AIDS) and clearly needs some moral--and dare I say it--spiritual guidance ("I only have two feelings: hunger and lust." Animals only possess the urge to eat and have sex; humans possess other, more uplifting traits, such as a soul, the ability for rational thought, the capacity to love and build lasting intimate relationships, an inherent moral code that enables them to distinguish right from wrong and to lead fulfilling, meaningful lives). She is violating her professional responsibilities as a teacher and educator: To uphold high public standards as a public official both in and outside of school. This is not a privacy or free speech issue. MySpace and Facebook are public forums that are accessible to millions of Internet users--including students, parents, and school leaders. What is posted on those sites becomes public information quickly. Teachers have a professional duty to make sure their profiles fall within general guidelines of proper behavior. The U.S. Supreme Court has recently ruled that teachers' free speech rights under the First Amendment are not absolute. The high court has stated that governments can terminate employees if their speech obstructs or damages the goals or functioning of the workplace.
Whether it is in the classroom, on school grounds or on the Internet, teachers must comport themselves in a professional, proper manner. This includes what they post on public social networking sites. If teachers want to paint canvasses with their buttocks or get smashed on tequila or spend nights chasing ten-dollar street-walkers, that is their right--as long as it is done on private time, in a private setting, and most importantly, kept as a private matter. Once it becomes public knowledge, it is no longer simply a privacy issue. Teachers are public role models. They used to know this--and gladly embraced it. Sadly, many of them no longer do.