Two teachers are out of a job. Both share some responsibility for their fates. The question is how much, and whether their school districts over-reacted to their conduct.
The easier of the two tales, and by far the funnier, took place in Prairie Village, a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas. A Mission Valley middle school teacher (make that ex-teacher) named Ryan Haraughty was drawing a map of the United States on the blackboard and drew Florida out of proportion. The extra-long, engorged Florida drew snickers from his teen age students, which Haraughty acknowledged by quipping, “Florida got excited.” Hilarity ensued.
Haraughty has acknowledged that he immediately sensed that he had let a good punch line get in the way of his better judgment, but decided to let the moment pass without further comment. A good decision, but not good enough, apparently: Haraughty was fired for creating “a sexually hostile environment.”
The facts of this case are these:
1. Haraughty did make an inappropriate classroom comment.
2. Teachers should not make sexually suggestive jokes, even funny ones, in a middle school class.
3. He is a popular and well-liked teacher: a Facebook page dedicated to reversing his firing has over 200 members.
4. Florida does look like a penis.
5. One off-the-cuff joke referring to Florida’s phallic features cannot create a sexually hostile environment.
When you add them all together, it is obvious that the school district’s action was excessive and unfair. (Caveat: News reports do not suggest that there had been other issues with Haraughty’s professional conduct. If this was just the final straw after a series of warnings, then the analysis would be different.) He made a mistake. Everyone who speaks extemporaneously for a living is at risk of letting an ill-considered, careless or undiplomatic remark slip out. The responsible professional exercises caution and prudence to prevent this from happening, but it still happens. It happened to President Obama, when he compared his bowling ineptitude to the Special Olympics. It happened to Bruce Springstein this week, when he greeted a Michigan audience by shouting out, “Hello, Ohio!” It happened to Ryan Haraughty, and the proper response from the school would have been to remind him that teachers cannot make such comments, and that he should consider himself warned. Assuming his work was otherwise acceptable, it was unreasonable for the school to fire him for what was a momentary error in judgment, and, all in all, a fairly minor one.
The more difficult situation took place in Barrow County, Georgia, where teacher Ashley Payne says she was forced out of her job at Apalachee High School for posting photos on Facebook that showed Payne drinking beer and wine while on her vacation to Europe. The school was also upset that she used the term “bitch” when she posted that she was going to an Atlanta bar that featured a bar game called “Crazy Bitch Bingo.” (Note:Payne says she misunderstood the administrative procedures surrounding her suspension and quit prematurely, so she is suing the school for not informing her that she had a right to a hearing. I’m not going to discuss that.)
It is reasonable to require teachers to avoid personal conduct that undermines their ability to hold the respect of their students. Similarly, it is reasonable for schools to require teachers not to engage in conduct that the education system needs to discourage or condemn. Teachers are role models and authority figures. What they do, in class, or out of it, influences student attitudes and conduct.
This means that conduct that would be appropriate or harmless in other contexts can be inappropriate for teachers. The internet poses risks that didn’t exist twenty years ago; private conduct posted on the web is accessible to students, making private conduct substantially public. In writing about another teacher who was fired for having nude photos of her on the web (and refusing to take them down), I articulated “the Naked Teacher Principle,” which is simply this: a responsible high school teacher has a duty to take reasonable care that her students do not see her in the nude. It is not too much to ask.
For “in the nude,” substitute drinking, bar-hopping, playing drinking games, driving with one’s feet, having sex, shooting assault rifles, abusing animals, casino gambling, smoking pot, wearing Nazi uniforms, wearing blackface, attending Klan rallies, visiting topless bars, shopping at sex shops, reading Playboy or Hustler, cross-dressing, engaging in sado-masochist role-playing, and painting pictures using one’s butt.
Clearly, Ashley Payne is at the mild end of this spectrum. It was a vacation, and she’s an adult. There is nothing wrong with having wine or beer with friends. Still, Payne knew that Barrow has a policy stating that employees can be investigated, disciplined and terminated for postings on Web sites that contain provocative photographs, sexually explicit messages, use of alcohol, drugs or anything students are not supposed to do. “Provocative” is subject to interpretation (nothing on Payne’s Facebook page could fairly be called “provocative”), but she clearly violated the policy by showing herself drinking alcoholic beverages.
She was careless, and she was wrong. This is not, however, like the naked teacher (who had turned herself, more or less permanently, into a sex object through her nudity), or a teacher appearing drunk in a bar, or the unwed pregnant teacher at a Catholic school, who by her presence in the classroom endorses and validates conduct that the school is obligated to discourage. The students know that adults drink adult beverages, and that their teachers, being adults, probably do too. There is nothing in Payne’s photos that undermine her authority or endorse dangerous or wrongful conduct. She could have defused the matter with one brief statement to the class; she could even have used it to launch a useful and educational discussion.
In short, the school over-reacted, talking suspension when, as in Haraughty’s case, all that was required was a warning. Payne’s defenders on-line, however, often miss the point and fall into various ethics misconceptions. It doesn’t matter that the conduct depicted in the photos was legal, for example. Many of the examples cited above, including butt-painting, are legal. Nudity is legal. The standard for teacher conduct that will come to the attention of students is a lot higher than merely “legal.” It is also no defense to say her conduct on the vacation is “personal.” When your personal conduct interferes with your ability to do your job well, it becomes professional conduct. Another “defense,” in essence the horrible “It’s not the worst thing!” excuse, appeared on an Atlanta blog:
“Frankly, given the sex tapes that folks are making and sending (Miss California, for instance) and the other outrageous stuff on the Internet, does this case warrant removal of the teacher?”
Arrrgh! We cannot and must not lower standards of conduct because others are engaging in more egregious conduct. Carrie Prejean’s sex tape should have no effect on how Georgia high school teachers should behave.
Two erring teachers, two ethics lessons that apply to both:
- Think about the impact of your actions on your ability to do your job.
- In supervising others, distinguish between misconduct that has unavoidable long-term consequences, and one-time mistakes that can be remedied with an apology and a warning.
Finally, let me add three more lessons that only apply to one or the other:
- Know your employer’s ethics code.
- Remember that Facebook gets seen by more than just your “friends.”
- Learn to draw Florida!