Public, private, and appropriate? Teachers and social network sites

‘A teacher at a leading Melbourne high school has reportedly quit her job after posting raunchy pictures of herself and making explicit sexual references on a public Twitter account’ (Kristian Silva, The Age, Dec. 16 2012).

This story is just one case in a long line of similar cases, but it’s also an excellent case to help us discuss the very slippery and blurry line between what is private and what is public, and who should be held more accountable for their performances of self online, and what kind of performances are inappropriate for some. According to the article in The Age by Kristian Silva, the teacher ‘posted a number of “selfless” on the Twitter account… [under] a pseudonym… and never named the school’. The pictures the teacher posted did show her face though, and again the account was public. The posts were pretty explicit, like ‘left work early to come home and masturbate’.

[Edit: Since posting this, another blog post has been brought to my attention, in which the author, Amy Gray, very thoroughly critiques the journalism going on in Silva’s original story. My post and Gray’s post are attending to different issues mostly, but her critiques of the story, from a more informed position given that she was following the teacher in question on twitter, are very valuable to read in conjunction with this post. My post picks up on some broader discourses in the story from a sociological perspective, Gray’s post focuses more on the specific details of the story and the associated journalistic practices.]

There are so many interesting threads in this story, but there are three assertions I want to address directly.

1. ‘She assured me that none of the students would know about her account’ (the school principal, Gerard Schiller) 

The web is big, and for the average user it can be hard to find stuff. Most people wouldn’t really try harder than a google/fb/twitter search if they were trying to track someone down, but others might be more persistent. It was probably naive to think people wouldn’t be able to connect the teacher with the twitter profile, especially given that she posted photos including her face, talked about working as a high school teacher and made references to the area the school is in – Glen Waverley. So it would take some investigating to forge the connection, but the teacher’s assumption that her anonymity was secure does demonstrate a certain kind of complacency here that I imagine is pretty typical.

2. ‘Teachers under 30 generally don’t have a clue’

Wow! I disagree, ‘cyber safety expert’ Susan McLean, but thanks for the generalisation there. This kind of assertion is an excellent example of generational discourses that frame young people as out of control or incapable of managing their identities. The sub-text and deeper assumption here, of course, is that the teacher in question didn’t intend this to happen, and that being found out is disastrous for her. This might not be true. The other really interesting thing about McLean’s assertion is that it totally flips that digital native myth we love to hate. Here, McLean is (I think?) actually saying that young people ‘don’t have a clue’ about being online. Older teachers are more reserved, but the ones under 30 just don’t have a clue. Huh? I imagine what McLean is trying to say here (and admittedly, context statements may have not have been included in the article) is that young teachers need to learn what is appropriate in a ‘public’ space (where, in this case, a public Twitter profile with ~1000 followers = public). This is true not just for young high school teachers, but probably all educators and indeed anyone who wants to have a presence on the social web. This is the broader discussion we’re having here, and we have to come to terms with the reality that there are no simple answers. We are still figuring this out.

3. ‘When you hold a position of responsibility that is viewed highly in the community, there is an obligation that you will behave in a way that is far superior to the rest of the population’

Another really loaded and troubling assertion from McLean, with clear parallels to incidents where sports stars have lost sponsorship deals or have been reprimanded over things they’ve said online. It’s true that we do often expect more from certain members of our society (politicians? sports stars? teachers?) but at what cost? Politicians wield a great deal of power and they are supposed to represent us, so a certain level of scrutiny is important there. Sports stars are more complicated – some may earn bucket loads of cash (not all!) and some may be very prominent celebrities in their own right, with an associated voice in popular discourse, so inevitably these figures will attract broad scrutiny. What about teachers though? Teachers don’t earn a lot of money, but they do play a critical role in socialising young members of our society. Does this mean they are not entitled to sexuality? Should teachers be banned from performing their sexuality, either online or offline? Again, there are no clear answers here, we are still figuring this out. We must avoid knee-jerk reactions though, and it’s critical that teachers be allowed to actually have a private life. How we draw lines around that is the messy part.

Finally, given the above, I want to spare a thought for the teacher at the centre of this story. Regardless of her intentions, her life is certainly more ‘public’ now, at least in the community associated with the high school she taught at, whatever ‘public’ might mean.

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