Here’s a question for all of us, teachers, students, parents, administrators; where is the line between one’s professional life and one’s personal life when it comes to issues of propriety on the job?

I ask because someone I respect and admire (and care about) is in some hot water at her job over her blog.

Now, before I go any further, let me get a couple of things out clearly and completely; I’m not going to out this person.  Though my friend and I have quite a few readers in common and it’s likely some of you know who I’m talking about, I’d prefer that we not mention her by name, please; she’s got enough stress as it is.  Also, I want to let those of you who DON’T know my friend know that nothing – NOTHING – she has EVER written has EVER (at least, in my opinion) been anything but self-reflective, professional and, perhaps most importantly, anonymous.  Even though my friend and I email privately, I don’t even know her last name.  I don’t know where she lives, I don’t know where she teaches.  These are important things to consider going forward.

Here’s what I want to know, and I’m interested not just for my friend, but for myself, too; at what point do our employers have the right to censor – or outright prohibit – teachers’ free and public expression online (well, anywhere, really, but I’m wondering specifically as it applies to blogs and forums and such, since that’s what we’re talking about)?

Please consider this question in the context of the way most of us blog about our professional experiences; we use pseudonyms, we obscure the identities of the students and colleagues who are players in the situations we write about, and we write not as an expression of viciousness but of self-analysis, professional growth, and collaboration.  When do our employers get to pull the proverbial plug on our computers and tell us to either cease and desist or find a new position?  DO they have that right?

I lost a job because of my blog (I’m not the first and I’ll not be the last.  Hell, we’ve even got a new word to describe the thing).  Someone I worked with – who was entirely anonymous on my site and about whom I never wrote anything disrespectful – didn’t appreciate my candor and the vigor with which I analyzed and investigated my experiences in the school and, well, that was the end of that.  I’m over it, certainly – there was a lot more going on in that situation than just a questionable blog entry, and the Universe saw to it that I landed in a much better job in the end – but the fact remains that the blog was the vehicle through which I was gotten rid of in this case.  While I suspect that there’s a lot more than the blog going on in my friend’s world, too, the fact remains that the blog has become a primary source of trouble for her.


My thinking about this is very First Amendment.  As long as a) there is no stipulation written into a teacher’s contract that s/he shall make no public statements concerning the school or the students, b) the blogger always and effectively conceals the identity of the school / students / colleagues in the course of writing his or her pieces and c) the blogger makes a reasonable effort to remain anonymous as a blogger within the professional environment, then I don’t see any reason why a school district or institution of higher learning should have the right to limit a teacher’s online expression.  Unless a clear case can be made that a teacher’s blog is having a detrimental effect on the learning environment, then it’s none of anyone else’s business what a teacher does or does not write, online or anywhere else.

I’m very interested in your collective take on this question, even if your answer isn’t one I want to hear.  I am sure that this is a question that most of us – teachers or not – are going to have to answer for ourselves at one point or another.  We’ve got this new reality; now we’ve got to figure out how to manage it ethically, responsibly and legally.



Filed under colleagues, compassion and cooperation, concerns, critical thinking, ethics, Learning, out in the real world, popular culture, Questions, self-analysis, Teaching, The Job, Yikes!

24 responses to “Edges

  1. Darci

    Tell me this is not who I think it is…I noticed that things have gone silent

  2. Here’s my take, and I am sure we can find just as many people who agree with me as disagree. First Amendment rights are between citizen and government, not employer / employee. If I say something on my blog, it is in the public view. Should my place of employ become somehow identifiable in any one of a variety of ways, and I discuss something that should remain in the confines of the office, what I have done is basically run off the mouth in public about my employer or my employer’s business. It’s a sticky problem, and I would hope that most people would not overreact. However, we live in such a fearful world, that even the most open-minded employers still worry about their company reputation in the outer society.

  3. You know how I feel about this but I’ll put it in here for the record. I think that, no matter how effectively you disguise a participant, the people who were around at the time will know. Saying anything here that you didn’t say to the faces of the participants is grounds for some sort of difficulty. Yes, I think there should be a warning system and some slack but I also think there’s a reasonable expectation from a safe classroom environment that your foibles won’t be shared in a public forum.

  4. Saintseester – for those of us who work in public schools, the government effectively is our employer.

  5. Seester, I know all about the idea that the First Amendment doesn’t do bupkus for us in the private sector – it’s one of the main points that I teach when I teach the ethics unit in my public speaking classes – but I still DO think that there should be some consideration given to the primary amendment in the business / education world. Shouldn’t the First Amendment at least influence private sector policies?

    Kizz, you and I have talked a lot about this – you’ve helped to shape my thinking about it perhaps more than anyone else, in fact – but here’s my question as it relates to what you’ve said; if I’m willing to say in public to my boss or my colleagues or my students what I say on my blog, what’s the difference? (and please read that without ANY perception of raised hackles – there’s no antagonism in the question, I swear).

    Also, does the fact that education, by its very nature (at least, how we do it in this country at this time and as I perceive it) is a collaborative effort make a difference in whether or not it’s appropriate to share experiences in a public way? Honestly, I think that is the biggest part of why I am so opinionated about this whole thing: I don’t think that TEACHING is collaborative enough. I share my stuff because I want to learn more from it than I can get to on my own.

  6. Darci

    The issue of collaboration, which Chili brings up, is one the characteristics that draws me to education and being a teacher. If you like how another teacher does something – use it. Share what works for you. We are all in this together and with a common goal. The person that lost her blog voice because she crossed some line is a voice that we are losing in the collaboration community. As a reader of her blog, she never was derogatory towards her admins – just questioning…perhaps that is the issue.

  7. If the employer (I’m thinking private sector, here) cares about how it’s represented and is being smart about things, it should require employees to sign a nondisclosure of some sort. I’ve had to do this once, but it was quite limited in what it restricted. Otherwise, it’s your personal expression made on personal time and they shouldn’t take punitive action based on that, particularly if the blogger isn’t lambasting the institution, by name.

  8. I lean pretty hard toward those First Amendment freedoms. I think they should impact the private sector’s behaviors.

  9. We did a unit on this in my Business Law class during my MBA. The professor (www.perrybinder.com) has written extensively about employee blogging related to what you can and can’t say about an employer in a blog.

    Overall, I’m troubled by the whole idea that an employer reserves the right to terminate you for any behavior that they find reflects negatively on the company. That’s a bit too subjective. But being a realist, I try not to talk about work much on the blog, and usually not in a way that is critical.

  10. I’ve worked off and on in an industry where I cannot talk about what I am doing nor on whose behalf. So, I am used to not having freedom of speech there.

    Let’s ponder it from the flip side of the coin. How far do privacy rights go when it comes to the people with whom you work and discuss on a blog. Even if finding out who they are is fairly far-fetched, if it isn’t impossible, are their rights being usurped? I know it is highly unlikely to learn anything about me based on the gooble street-view of my home, but just knowing that visual is out there really, really bugs me. (I am crafting a cease and desist letter by the way – they don’t have my permission but I don’t carry the same clout as a celebrity)

  11. I blog anonymously mostly because I write about kids from time to time. I tell virtually anyone who asks me who I am and I don’t much care if the folks where I work know, including the administrators. I don’t specifically identify my school either though, again because of kids.

    I often think about putting my name out there, but then there would be a lot of things I just couldn’t write about anymore.

  12. I think that this issue will be decided for teachers in the near future. It is very much a First Amendment issue and will be decided in a federal court.

    Meanwhile, the interesting thing to ponder is “blog” vs. “hair parlor.” If you were saying the same things out loud (e.g. in a hair parlor or parking lot or restaurant…), they would not garner the same First Amendment attention that blogging does. This, to me, is odd. If it’s not punishable to say out loud, why then it is okay for someone to lose a job if the exact same info is on-line.

  13. Science Goddess, could it be the perceived permanence of a blog post that’s the problem? Saying something into the air has a high degree of deniability; if word gets back to your principal that you’re talking trash about her, you can always deny it or, at the very least, spin it so that there’s some wiggle room. There’s no iron-clad way to hold someone to hearsay.

    A blog post is very different; there’s an author. The words are right there. Sure, there are issues of interpretation (how many of us have misinterpreted an email or a blog comment? I’m willing to bet pretty much every hand went up for that one), but the fact remains that a hair salon comment can’t be printed out and thumb-tacked to the teachers’ lounge cork board, you know?

    Finally, I wonder if it’s the far broader audience that blogs have over hair salons and teachers’ lounges that works against bloggers. Many people I know (including Mr. Chili) are uncomfortable with the feeling that literally ANYONE practically ANYWHERE can read what I write. Online, there’s no control over the audience like one would have in a face-to-face setting. We often moderate what we say based on who’s in the room, and that’s not an option for blogs.

    I’m agreeing with you, SG – I DON’T think there’s much difference. If someone is willing to speak the contents of a blog post in said teachers’ lounge (or hair salon, or wherever) then that content passes the “safe” test for blog posts in my book. I know a lot of people who disagree, though, and I suspect it’s the “foreverness” of blog entries that’s key to their discomfort.

  14. Well, first, there are a lot of things that you would feel comfortable saying to your supervisor or to your students face to face that make me super uncomfortable. As a student I suspect your directness in criticism could be a reason we wouldn’t be a good fit, especially for the student I was at 18, 19 or so when you’re getting them.

    Secondly there is a permanence to it that’s dangerous insofar as, if it’s perceived as embarrassing by a third party it can be passed around like note in the classroom except it can go all around the world. These people haven’t given consent for their business to be in the street. If what you say is somewhat scathing and you haven’t said it to the person in question first then you are saying it behind their back. If it was a friendship that dog wouldn’t hunt. And traditionally friends cut more slack than employers or clients.

    I also think it depends on what subjects you’re writing about. How to motivate students, how to keep on track with admin tasks, new lesson plans, the pros and cons of teaching software, literature discussions etc. are very different than publishing student work that was passed in to you alone or discussing the work style of a colleague or student. As a writer it’s the publishing student content part, even the shitty stuff, or especially the shitty stuff, that I sometimes have to turn away from. I’m not always comfortable reading my work allowed and you’re publishing it to the world without my permission and as a what not to do tool? That would be grounds for a real complaint, I think.

  15. aloud.

    It was early.

    Beyond that I have no excuse.

    This is why the internet is embarrassing.

  16. Hi Mrs Chili. I find it pretty crazy what’s happening to this blogger. Everything is anonymous, and no child is identifiable. I know that we have to be uber careful about what we say about kids, but never does this blogger even speak in a derogatory way. As you say, the only things talked about are personal reflections, stories, and, frankly, a heck of a lot of inspirational material for other teachers.

    I notice the blog has gone private. I’m not sure if there will be invites sent out to those who left their email addresses. I hope so. I’ll definitely miss this blog! Thanks for speaking out so actively for this person.

  17. jrh

    So here’s what I worry about: I have an anecdote, a challenge, a bad day that I want to write about (about which I want to write?). I change my student’s name, possibly gender, some of the circumstances, but if a student has found my blog, knows it’s mine, and was present, he can tell he’s a main character (or worse yet, he incorrectly suspects he’s a main character). He doesn’t like how he’s portayed, and since it’s public, this skirts too close to defamation for me. I don’t know the law, but I do know that parents in my district don’t often hesitate to investigate legalities (uh oh, was that defamation?) and I don’t want to be anywhere near the edge. I do believe I have a right to express my feelings about the life that I lead, but not at the expense of my kids.

  18. Dudley

    Anything said in the hair parlor can be chalked up as heresay. It’s also, most likely, limited to those in the hair parlor.

    Once it’s on the blog, it can be copied, pasted, and sent to anybody. Think about e-mails and videos that “go viral.”

    I suspect that the hair parlor comments would have garnered a simlar reaction if they became known to the employer, AND caused the employer aggravation.

    Remember, the squeeky wheel gets the oil, and blogs can get pretty squeeky.

  19. Dudley

    ooops that would be hearsay :~)

  20. Dudley

    ooops that would be hearsay :~)

  21. My sense (and I’ve been developing this over the past year) is that any incidents I relate, no matter how I change them, need to be hidden behind a friends-lock on LJ. Anything critical beyond a simple kvetching gets hidden behind a friends-lock and I limit it pretty tightly. I only periodically read the NEA Journal these days, but between what that says and what my state organization recommends, I keep stuff pretty tight. If I’m not sure, I either don’t post it or I keep it to a list of known entities.

    One thing to keep in mind is that this blogger is working in a pretty small town, in a region where it wouldn’t be hard to figure out who it is if you’re local. I suspect that it’s more of a concern in such settings than it is in larger urban settings. Sad, because I am one who teaches in a similar setting–and I’m very careful these days. Just remember the fate of the teacher who had her pirate party picture on Facebook!

  22. This is interesting because I found your post via a google search on our friend.

    a) Essentially, if I write about anything in a *diary*, web or not, and someone copies it, and gives it to several people, and I complain about my boss but don’t identify him, even if I’m the only teacher for miles around, one would assume there would be no problem. (Holy run-on sentence Batman!)

    b) I’m sure that her boss had it out for her. To research and prod and look for stuff that would give them reason to terminate her is insane. I say it very much is a case of *causing their own misery*

    c) First amendment: When I started my blog, it was WITH my students. That was 75000 hits ago. My students blogged with me, but I never put their last names on it, and I never wrote anonymously about them, since I knew they would read it. My first posts were about assignments, how to write blogs, etc. Then, I hit a professional skid, changed schools, then districts, and now am in a different town, a continuation school with much different issues. I blog anonymously, but I am positive if someone were looking, they would find me.

    I find her plight perplexing. They have lost a great teacher.

  23. That’s similar to what’s happening in my school district. Several teachers posted on Facebook, and what they wrote was arguably over the line.

    Several other teachers may be in trouble because of inappropriate pictures (drinking, sexy – but clothed – poses). I have a HUGE problem with this. At what point does a teacher lose his/her right to an adult life? If a student sees us drinking in a public restaurant, can we be fired? If they happen to catch sight of us smooching with a spouse/significant other, is our employment in jeopardy?

    Or are we only in trouble if there is photographic evidence of it?

  24. My thought on that, Linda, is that if WE post pictures of behavior that would be questionable for children or teens, that shows poor judgment. However, if someone ELSE takes a photo of us behaving legally as adults, and shops it around, I would hope anyone who objected would have some sense talked into them pretty darn quick.

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