The Private Life of a Teacher: Should It be Grounds for Dismissal?

Contemporary teachers have a tougher time keeping their work and personal lives separate than any of their predecessors. Social media alone has made it almost impossible to hide private lives from the eyes of students, their parents and even administrators. If a teacher wants social media to be part of his or her free time, it is difficult to keep it closeted from the rest of the world. Most teachers have absolutely nothing to hide, but not being able to shut off the classroom persona outside of school hours can be tiresome, at best.

Of course, curiosity surrounding what teachers do in their spare time was not birthed with Facebook or Instagram. Consider New York’s Feinberg Law that was adopted in 1949 in view of the communist infiltration of public schools during that time.  A list of organizations that were in favor of overthrowing the U.S. government by violent means was created.  Any person who turned out to be a member of any organization on the list was deemed unfit to take any office in the school system.

The law helped the court reach several verdicts in later years, even though the Feinberg Law was eventually ruled to be largely unconstitutional. A membership to any organization did not mean that the individual partook in the goals of the organization.  At the same time however the court maintained that the school boards still had every right to screen employees and dismiss them if their personal views supported the overthrow of the U.S. government.

This may seem like an extreme example but it still serves the point that even activities that have no direct correlation to the job of educating K-12 students can come under scrutiny. On the whole, U.S. laws seem to be quite ambiguous on whether or not a teacher’s private life can be a basis for his or her dismissal from school.  The general trend has been against teachers ‘interests, and teachers’ private lives have met with disapproval from the courts.  Court verdicts have, at times, upheld teacher’s rights too.  An Ohio court for instance ruled that a teacher could not be dismissed for using offensive language in a confidential letter to one of the students.  Likewise, in another case, the court observed that it was unethical to dismiss a teacher from his services on charges of indulging in a homosexual relationship with a fellow teacher.  The explanation provided was that unless a teacher’s actions hindered his or her ability to teach, any disciplinary action against him or her could not be taken.

The bottom line is that unless a teacher’s private life interferes with his or her professional conduct as a teacher, it should not be of concern to school authorities, the court, or society in general. On the other hand, the decision regarding these issues is very subjective, and clear-cut definitions of what is “interfering” and what is not “interfering”, do not really exist.  The only way to reach to a consensus is by a way of an agreement between the teacher’s organization and the school district about what is acceptable and what is not. It would do society as a whole a lot of good, too, to remember that though teaching is a calling, it is also a job. Teachers are people too, and deserve that treatment.


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