Society’s “Acceptable” Prejudice Against Teachers: Why Does Being an Educator Mean Losing Your Right to Self-Expression?

Dawn Bevier

We are grown adults and should have the liberty to be ourselves

Image by Tumisu on Pixabay

I’m a teacher. Of tech-savvy adolescents. And when these students are particularly bored of their peers’ social media interactions, they proceed to google their teacher’s names or try to browse their social media accounts like we were some sort of Instagram star.

For example, we have Chromebooks at school for each student, and when I covered a science class for another teacher who called in sick, I saw a wallpaper of a former teacher at my school — his mugshot picture for a DUI, to be specific.

Adolescents can sometimes be what social media defines as creepers, people who search out other people’s social media accounts to secretly peer into their private lives. And there is nothing so fun for them as finding “dirt” on the teachers with whom they interact every day.

And inevitably, if they search hard and long enough, they will find unseemly behaviors or photos of all kinds.

They may find, for example, a photo of a teacher on a date wearing a particularly short skirt or a blouse with a neckline a bit too low. They may find a picture of an educator with a mixed drink in his or her hand or puffing on a cigarette.

And with a teenager’s prowess at passing along social media images and tweets as easily as they breathe in oxygen, these images, tweets, and the like immediately “go viral” and tear through the school like a tornado.

Even simple everyday things that most people do publicly and without thought become fodder for this ever-present paparazzi of teens when they involve a teacher: buying beer from the grocery store, shopping in the underwear section of a department store, or having a glass of wine at a local bar with friends.

A teacher then hears whispers during class such as “I saw Mrs. Benning pulling into the ABC store” or “Did you know Mr. White smokes? I saw him puffing away in the Burger King drive-through!”

Quite suddenly, like someone pulling off Spiderman’s mask, a teacher’s monastic super-hero status is then permanently revoked. He or she is from then on relegated as immoral and shameful, simply for engaging in normal activities that most people, parents included, do regularly.

But that doesn’t stop parents and the public at large from complaining to school boards, attempting to squash an educator’s career for actions committed in the past or ones that present themselves in the present.

And as a teacher, I resent this.

I know unmarried teachers who have become pregnant and worn fake wedding rings, teachers who drive twenty miles away to buy alcohol instead of going to the store around the corner. Teachers who forego desires for a tattoo, a piercing, or even a brightly colored streak of blue or purple in their hair for fear of the great hordes of parents and administrators who will no doubt find their actions reprehensible.

I feel that I and other teachers should not have to curtail my their “off the clock” appearance and activities as long as their professional conduct on the job is appropriate. For instance, I shouldn’t have to worry about wearing a pair of high heels to a restaurant, being seen going into an ABC store, or smoking cigarettes after hours when I feel so inclined.

And not only do students, parents, and administrators seem to have an implied right to force educators to look a certain way or behave according to their own moral codes, a large part of the world does as well.

Teachers are grown adults, and we should have the freedom to express ourselves in our private lives and not be censored.

But alas, the age-old expectations rear their ugly heads. And it’s unfair.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that there are certain actions from educators that would present conditions that would make a teacher’s role in the classroom unconducive to learning.

For example, the NZ Herald writes on the situation of Australian born math teacher Scott Sherwood, who served as an educator at Peacehaven Community School in East Sussex. Students googled Sherwood and discovered provocative videos and photos of the teacher online. Sherman had, in fact, been acting in completely inappropriate films in his free time. The publication reports that “he was exposed by a secondary school student who found a video of him on YouTube [and that] students then began exchanging explicit images of the teacher.”

Being a secondary teacher myself, I can see how a situation such as this could impede Sherwood’s ability to deliver successful instruction and make it extremely hard for the school’s functioning and reputation to remain intact, as controversies such as this one would make him the continual subject of classroom banter and parental concern.

And Scott also chose to hide his past occupation from those who hired him, a silent deception that he knew in great probability would have kept him from getting the job.

But what about teachers with a bit of a “saucy” background who openly confessed their past and were still hired, only later to be fired when the details of their controversial past become public.

For example, the New York Post reports on the struggles of previously well-esteemed guidance counselor Tiffany Webb, aged 37, who in her late teens and early twenties modeled bikinis. Though she quit these types of jobs years before her descent into teaching, they were discovered by a student and shown to an ex-principal.

Without Webb’s knowledge, some of the photos were put on unsavory sites and even altered by Photoshop to further exploit her.

The end result was the loss of her job.

The publication reports that “days before Webb was to get tenure as an $84, 200-a-year guidance counselor, she was dismissed for ‘conduct unbecoming’ a DOE [Department of Education] employee.”

This begs the question of whether is it legally right to punish teachers for behaviors that occurred before he or she was hired, especially if the news of previous “scandalous” information had been openly confessed beforehand.

Another controversy that pervades the educational system is the question of whether members of the LGBTQ can be subject to job discrimination. Information leads to the conclusion that, in a lot of situations, this anti-LQBTQ is legal.

For example, Education Week explains that almost thirty states in America have no “explicit employment discrimination protections for LGBTQ workers.”

The Atlantic recounts the experience of a gay New York teacher named Glenn Bunger. Bunger “came out” at school only after he received tenure, a professional status which makes it much harder for teachers to be fired. Before then, Bunger states that “[he] couldn’t even participate in casual interactions with [co-workers]” and that he had to “constantly play a ‘pronoun game’ when [he talked] about his partner.”

He even details that at the start of his career, he hesitated to call out bullies who taunted others with abusive words against the LBTQ community because he was afraid that any defensive action on his part would somehow “out” his hidden identity.

And it seems that not only LGBTQ’s are subject to the teacher’s chopping block, as those with particular nationalities or religious affiliations are also prone to educational prejudice.

The Daily Beast reports on the case of Palestinian-American and Muslim teacher Sireen Hashem, who taught history at Hunterdon Central Regional High School. Hashem was fired after showing a video on education and women’s rights activist Malala Yousafzai, the young girl who was almost killed by the Taliban for rebelling against rules that females should not attend school. The publication mentions the fact that even though other non-Muslim teachers of history had shown the same video to students, they faced no professional repercussions.

They also state that Hashem’s superiors supposedly “told [Hashem] that she could not teach current events in the same manner as her non-Arab, non-Palestinian, and non-Muslim colleagues.”

As a teacher, I find these words and actions prejudicial and unfair. A good history teacher shows students examples of those who have made history and changed the world through their brave and heroic actions. I myself have even taught the autographical book I Am Malala in my literature class, and I cannot imagine a teacher not allowed to do the same based on her religion or place of orientation. The idea itself actually is quite hypocritical, as Yousafzai herself is a proponent of human rights, not only female rights.

These examples noted above are the “big things” related to an educator’s life that seem unfair in a country that prides itself on freedom of expression and the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but even seemingly innocent actions of educators have been also been reason for suspension or dismissal.

For example, a Los Angeles Times’article entitled “Teachers under the morality microscope” cites teachers who were suspended or fired over much less scandalous behaviors such as an online photo that contained a teacher at a bridal shower with a male dancer (posted incidentally by a third party) and a photo of a teacher drinking alcohol during a vacation. In the latter situation, the publication reports that the school’s defense for their action was that the picture “ promoted alcohol abuse.”

The bottom line:

Even though Find Law states that teachers are “ protected from certain harms under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution [and they ] have the right to be free from discrimination based on race, sex, and national origin — as well as freedom of expression, academics, privacy, and religion,” this doesn’t seem to be the case.

Host Neal Conan of NPR discussed the controversial situation over whether teachers should suffer professional repercussions for career off-time activities with George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley.

Turley commented that “it’s a remarkable disconnect, where you have teachers that teach our children civil liberties, but they themselves are denied in exercising the full range of freedoms that adults have. Most of us really believe that once that whistle blows at the end of the day, then, you know, our life is our own, and we can express ourselves and pursue the things that we want to pursue.”

Teachers should also have the right to be themselves outside of school walls, and I myself will not bow down in reverence to society’s beliefs that because I am an educator, I should also play the part of nun.

So yes, I will run to the corner store to get a beer instead of to a city twenty miles away; after all, I teach sixty wonderful yet wild teens a day. Don’t I deserve a drink afterward? I think I do.

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Sanford, NC

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