The Richmond Hill, Ont., teacher fired this week after allegedly posting racist and anti-Muslim tweets didn’t just violate his school’s social media guidelines, an education expert says — he broke the “unwritten social contract” that all teachers are expected to adhere to.
Society holds teachers to a higher standard than the average person, who might be able to get away with behaving badly or speaking out of turn when they’re off the clock, said Benjamin Kutsyuruba, an educational policy and law professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
“Unlike some other professions that enjoy greater anonymity, the teaching profession is held to a greater standard of care because of the nature of their work and their role of teaching children and other vulnerable persons,” Kutsyuruba said.
We trust teachers every day with an enormous responsibility — to take care of our children and help shape their minds. Every time a teacher breaks this trust, Kutsyuruba said, the effects ripple through the entire education system.
“Their actions, or inactions in some cases, may erode the trust society has in the teaching profession, in teachers themselves,” he said.
‘Way too racist to be a teacher’
Michael Marshall was dismissed Tuesday from his job as an English teacher at the Richmond Green Secondary School following a 10-week investigation into tweets he allegedly posted under the handle @FirstAtheist.
The account has since been deleted, but screengrabs from the National Post and the Toronto Star show a series of racist and anti-Muslim tweets, including one that derided girls who wear hijabs and another that discussed converting students to atheism.
One tweet read: “Decided that I am way too racist to be a teacher. #theycantbreath” in reference to a popular hashtag used to discuss police brutality against black people.
Another tweet read: “Just have a trailer full of guns roll down the street and arm the ghetto. Oh wait that’s black ppl.”
The school board hasn’t commented since firing Marshall, but stated previously that it takes “concerns about racist tweets very seriously.”
Social media’s slippery slope
Marshall is just the latest in a long line of teachers who have faced repercussions for their social media activities.
Navigating the minefield that is social media can be tricky for teachers, and sometimes, the missteps they take seem fairly innocent.
Take Ashley Payne, a Georgia teacher who was fired for posting vacation pictures on Facebook that showed her holding glasses of beer and wine. Or Jon O’Keefe, the Boston substitute teacher dismissed for friending students on Facebook.
But sometimes, teachers land themselves in hot water over posts that are insensitive at best, if not downright cruel.
Christine Rubino, a Brooklyn teacher, was fired after she wrote on Facebook that she hated her Grade 5 students, who she referred to as “devils spawn,” and said she wouldn’t save one particular child from drowning for a million dollars. She later got her job back.
Texas teacher Karen Fitzgibbons lost her job after commenting on Facebook about a video of a white police officer roughly handling a black teenage girl, by writing: “I’m almost to the point of wanting them all segregated.”
Hot topics not off limits, prof says
So, should teachers avoid sensitive topics like race, religion and policing altogether?
“It’s not that teachers are discouraged from engaging in a productive and constructive dialogue,” said Kutsyuruba.
In fact, he said, talking about these things, while not always easy, can be quite enriching for students.
“But it has to be done in a professional manner with an avoidance of criticism of students and colleagues,” he said, while “also ensuring there are no discriminatory or socially and professionally unacceptable comments.”
The written and unwritten rules
Most school boards have specific rules about teachers’ social media use and the possible disciplinary actions they could face. Teachers should familiarize themselves with these rules, said Kutsyuruba.
If the school board lacks such a policy, the Ontario College of Teachers’ social media guideline is a good resource to refer to, he added.
But it’s important to remember that people don’t just expect teachers to follow the rules as written, he said.
Much like a doctor’s mantra is to do no harm, teachers are also expected to live their lives with one ultimate goal in mind — to do what’s best for their students.
“Whatever the teachers do, especially on social media, they should have this in mind,” Kutsyuruba said.
He said any time a teacher posts anything, they should ask themselves: “Will I be a good role model for the children? Will this behaviour, this conduct, this action, serve the best interest of the children?”
In the case of the Richmond Hill high school teacher, whose own students saw the tweets in question, Kutsyuruba says the answer is no.