I’m ready to sacrifice a lot for this profession; but do I have to sacrifice my private life?
November 5, 2011 7:12 PM   Subscribe

I'm about to enter the public school profession and am struggling with societal mindsets about who teachers have to be. Can public school teachers still be complex adults when they're off the job?

I’m half-way through my graduate degree at a very liberal Massachusetts University, working toward becoming a public High School teacher. I’ve known for a very long time that teaching is what I want to do, and have no pretensions about entering a very demanding profession for pauper’s pay. I do, however, struggle with the societal mindset that teachers must be some sort of gleaming example of society; that for some reason, while all of my friends can be professional at work and then absolute delinquents on the weekend, teacher’s are held to a different standard. (And I’m no delinquent.)

Almost daily I’m reading stories from more conservative states where teachers are being fired for even the smallest things; i.e. having a picture on FB holding a beer. (yes, that actually happened this last year.) Or partaking in political demonstrations, etc.

While I appreciate that people use social media stupidly and don’t watch their privacy or their backs, I’m starting to feel that in order to take up my dream profession I am being asked to sacrifice my identity. I’m liberal, I’m outspoken, very pro GLBTQ, and I’m passionate about a variety of political issues; but I know how to be diplomatic and not push my ideals on the kids I teach. At the risk of receiving some eye-rolls, I’ll also admit that I smoke grass privately to ease my symptoms of Crohn’s disease. So obviously that’s a concern as well.

While my teaching program is preparing me for many eventualities with my some-day students, surprisingly no one is schooling me on teacher’s rights, or resources I may count upon to know where the lines are drawn. As many laws are state and/ or district specific, there is a lot of very ominous grey area as to what a teacher can be fired for. One Massachusetts standard I found:

MASSACHUSETTS: Teacher's certificate may be revoked for cause. Teachers may be dismissed for inefficiency, incapacity, conduct unbecoming of a teacher, insubordination, failure to satisfy teacher performance standards, or other just cause.

When I read things so disturbingly vague as “conduct unbecoming of a teacher” I feel trapped, and the usual Google searches are not returning anything very enlightening.
I’m looking for advice from teachers, especially those who have “unbecoming” interests by night. Any anecdotes, or resources that may point to more information would be greatly appreciated.

I would love to find better resources that I might look to/learn more about how I can protect my private life (if at all) while being a super hero of a public school teacher by day.
I’m ready to sacrifice a lot for this profession; but do I have to sacrifice myself?
posted by billypilgrim to Education (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This won't make you feel better at all, but I almost got fired during my first (and only) year as a public school teacher for being a lesbian-- despite the fact that I'm not actually a lesbian (I'm just past a certain age and not married, so my students, fellow teachers, and supervisors assumed that I must be a lesbian. And I didn't deny it, because I didn't want to exacerbate the already bad situation for gay students at the school by making it seem like it was wrong to be gay/ lesbian). And then I quit teaching and got a job doing something else where no one cares if you're gay or drink beer.
posted by rhymeswithcheery at 7:28 PM on November 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Also, a strong union is your best ally in such situations. I did not teach in a district with a strong union, unfortunately.
posted by rhymeswithcheery at 7:30 PM on November 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Honestly, school districts are so crazy these days that you can get busted for ANYTHING. If I were you, I'd say you'd better think of your life as if you were a politician. You can't do anything (you'd better stop the weed, and have this post anonymized), and you'd better be so clean you squeak. Hell, anonymize everything you possibly can or make sure it's not easily traceable to yourself. I wish I had comforting advice for you on this, but I don't. If you can busted for beer, or for being single/presumed lesbian, or for writing romance novels under a pen name...

Right now I know someone who is a fairly big shot IN a union and has tight connections there, and she's currently in deep shit for making a joke in front of someone who didn't like her. It can be anything now that will get you in trouble. I admire teachers, but they unfortunately have to put up with a great deal of insanity these days. That is the price you are choosing to pay in order to do that job, like celebrities lose their privacy and politicians...yeah.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:51 PM on November 5, 2011

This was the late 90s, but a family friend's "contract was not renewed" because she was a lesbian. This was in a rural, yet sort of hippy dippy, town in Colorado. And she was incredibly discreet, but the mere fact she had a short hair cut that was vaguely "butch" got her effecitvely fired (luckily not actually career ending fired though). She found a great job right away at a school in Denver that couldn't care less, so I think it depends hugely on locale.

In another small Colorado town in the 90s, another family friend and teacher had to dispel A LOT of rumors because she was married, but her husband was finishing up his degree in a town a few hours away. She spent most of her weekends with her husband and to save money she shared a house with another male teacher (the house had pretty seperate living areas for them both and they were both straight out of school and broke). This caused many of her fellow teachers and the principal to get all aflutter! Such a scandal. Coed roommates in the late 90s. Luckily after she spelled it out for them that nothing was going on they all calmed down.

I have friends in DC and LA who are teachers who do whatever they want. Although I don't believe any of them use drugs. However, it wouldn't surprise me if they did on occasion discreetly. It doesn't appear either of them think twice about it. I've never heard any of them think twice about it, other than to maybe not want to go to a bar around the corner from their school for happy hour and that was more because they just didn't want to run into students, not that they thought it would get them fired.

If you want a private life, teaching in a big metropolitan area or its suburbs and living in a different suburb is probably the way to go. And try not to live where you teach. My mom taught in a small town in CO and teachers' lives were certainly the subject of town gossip, however I can't ever think of an instance where that led to any sort of professional problems, mostly just an unwanted intrusion in your life. Of course all the teachers I knew were very middle aged with kids and often quite religious, so they didn't have much to hide.

From what I can tell, the social expectations placed on teachers is VERY dependant on the community in which they teach. Teach in a liberal part of the country, living in a different town, be carefuly with your facebook page, and don't get arrested and I'm guessing you would largely be fine.

And join your union! My mother's teaching partner was falsely accused of hitting a kid despite about 15 witnesses who all said he didn't. The kid's parents brought in a lawyer and the school was quite prepared to make the problem just go away by firing him, until the union showed up with their lawyer. He kept his job and nothing went on his record.
posted by whoaali at 7:56 PM on November 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Take your real name off your Metafilter profile, Twitter account, etc. well before you apply for your first job. Even if the school doesn't care, some of your kids will most assuredly look you up, and you don't want stuff hanging around in caches.
posted by Adventurer at 8:03 PM on November 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

Obviously, as you stated, this varies tremendously by state, city and even district. The things for which the state of Alaska may yank your license, for example, is here. Some things are, indeed, vague. Most issues will not get brought as far up as the Professional Teaching Practices Commission, but I do know of a few people in my state who have been asked to resign in lieu of being fired and being reported to the Commission and losing their license to teach anywhere in the state (for example, lying fairly innocuously but stupidly obviously about their use of sick leave).

(warning: pdf) appears to be the Code of Ethics for the Massachusetts Teaching Association and may be a good start. The Massachusetts DOE has a frustrating web page with a lot of broken links when you try and do useful searches in Google, but here is some general licensure information and perhaps you may better at digging than I did. Key phrases to Google include "Professional teaching practices" or "Code of Ethics" + teaching + whatever state you think you might want to teach in. You can also see if you can find the EEOC page for whatever district you want to work in and see, if for example, they include "sexual orientation" in their list of protected classes, and dig for whether they offer benefits for same-sex partners if not required by law in your area. Check to see whether the unions are powerful in your area (yes? good sign), don't live in precisely the same area where you teach, and make sure that your kids' parents are not involved in your social circles.

The problem is that most dealings with teachers who leave districts are not particularly public and a lot of stuff is of the make-the-teacher-so-miserable-they-choose-to-leave variety. Your best bet is to teach at a district/area/school where people share the same liberal values as you. If you are, for example, an out gay person trying to teach in rural Utah or Texas or Alabama, for example, you're probably going to run into trouble. If you're in New York City or Austin or even Salt Lake City, or teaching at a charter school with diversity and social justice as its guiding force, you're probably going to be fine. Even if you are teaching in a fairly liberal places, you need to lock down your social media pretty tightly and be careful about what comes up when you search your full name on the Internet. And if you are talking to kids about your personal views or personal life, you certainly need to be thinking about why and if it is relevant to the educational topics at hand, and explicitly differentiate between your personal views and the institutional views of the school or district.
posted by charmedimsure at 8:03 PM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I should have stated from the off that I am actually posting on behalf of a friend, so this account is not actually tied to the questioner. These responses are rocking so far though, I think we're definitely generating some insightful conversation. These links are very helpful. Keep it coming!
posted by billypilgrim at 8:08 PM on November 5, 2011

Oh I should add, now that I think of it, I don't think any of my teacher friends actually have facebook accounts at all so that their kids can't find them, and I'm sure by extension their parents and administration.
posted by whoaali at 8:26 PM on November 5, 2011

Unfortunately, you can't separate the public image part of the job from the job itself. It makes me think of celebrities - an aspiring actor can't say "Is there a way for me to be an extremely successful actor but still maintain a normal private life?" The answer is no. You can avoid interviews, and not talk to anyone about your romantic entanglements, but that's not gonna stop the paparazzi from tracking you down at a Jamba Juice. At least when you're a teacher, the reason your public image is so important is because people want only the "best" working with their children - but of course, what you define as "best" and a school board or group of parents define as "best" won't always be the same.

Things you can do - contact someone from the teacher's union where you imagine you'll be teaching, and ask about your concerns privately/anonymously. Set your facebook settings so only your friends can see anything you post - so even if someone searches for your first and last name, you won't come up. Make sure you have whatever documentation you need on hand that allows you to smoke pot legally for your medical condition. Don't teach in a state or area that is mainly conservative, or just where the most commonly held political/social views disagree with your own.
posted by violetish at 9:37 PM on November 5, 2011

I haven't been a public school teacher for a few years but I think some of these responses sound a bit extreme compared to my experience, thank goodness, and I taught in the reddest of the red states. School and school culture make all the difference, though. This so so so much the truth. School culture will make or break you.

At my school, quite a few of the teachers, department heads, administrators at my school, for example, were GLBTQ (well, not T, come to think of it...). Some kids knew, some suspected, some didn't. Although these teachers didn't lie or try too hard to hide anything, most didn't "come out" to their students because it was none of the students' business. Just as I, a young straight woman, didn't ever talk about my boyfriend, whether or not I had one, etc., or anything else about my personal life, neither did they.

In general, we all did this because it was NOT ABOUT US. It's not about you. It's not about your politics or your personal life or your feelings. It's about creating a safe and productive space for learning. The students didn't know who was gay, but they knew who they could come to talk about being bullied, who to ask to be GSA advisor, who had enough control over their classroom such that bullying would not occur, at least not that period.

This is not because you should be scared of some witch hunt but because it's not about you. It's about your students. They will learn better if you have healthy boundaries. When I think back to all my favorite teachers, it seems I knew very little about their personal lives. I might have known that they had a cat named Abraham Lincoln. That's really about it. I knew they were kind and stern and loved the subject and teaching it. I knew they cared about me. I knew that I could-- within reason-- yak my head off about my dreams and problems and they would listen more than talk and give good advice without telling me about how they were trying to quit smoking so they like totally understood.

The only teachers, actually, whose politics or religion I knew were those who were intolerant of those who didn't agree with them. Mostly conservative. I probably suspected others, but they were the only ones who made a big deal out of it. You will have students of many backgrounds. Don't alienate any of them. Your convictions will guide you to create the culture of your classroom. You do not need to overtly perform them all the time for them to impact your students.

You can definitely have all the unbecoming interests you like-- I certainly did!-- but DO IT FAR AWAY FROM THE STUDENTS and DO NOT DOCUMENT IT. So yeah, DO NOT live in the same neighborhood or town as where you teach. Lock down your social media presence. Completely. If it's there, they will find it. Make it totally hidden or totally vanilla. I do not think a teacher should be fired for having a beer-holding FB photo, but I do not think they should have one. Nor do I think they should be friends with their students. Why? Because students are students and not "friends."

You should probably not be admitting to any employer or anyone under 18 that you smoke weed. Why would you? Being a teacher requires a A LOT of professionalism, but so does being a professional of every other stripe? Teachers deserve just as much respect as doctors. Would you want to see your doctor hitting a bong or making out with someone in a bar? Lots of corporate HR departments will require you to be a lot more buttoned down than a lot of schools systems will...

Of course you will sacrifice your private life, but mostly because-- for at least the first couple of years-- you will not have time to have one. That's a real reality of teaching. If you're not willing to put in the time to pay your dues, you won't be a very good teacher or a very happy one. At first anyway, you have to be all in. So there's that consolation, anyway! There won't be too much to Not Document.

But actually, probably the best way to know if the teacher lifestyle is right for you is to hang out with successful teachers who are more or less like you. Have honest conversations with them. Volunteer or intern as much as you. Try to get hired at a non dysfunctional school with lots of younger teachers so the pressure and the attention is off of you and norms around these types of things are already in place.
posted by lalalana at 10:02 PM on November 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

Teachers are so demonized in this country now, that any extracurricular activity that doesn't fit into an absolutely pitch-perfect June Cleaver persona could lead to shouts of "How can we let this fiend teach our children?!?!?!?!?!?!" from the moralists and the anti-public-school/anti-union crowds.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:01 AM on November 6, 2011

Hi, I teach in NYC and I'm pretty sure you can do whatever you want in your free time but the workload and schedule (esp first 2 years) kills you anyway so you don't have to worry too much! Not to be flip but it's not the rules that change you as a person and curtail your free time activites it's actually the early and relentless schedule that does it for you. Like saying you're not going to change when you become a parent....I'm pretty sure it just happens!! Another perk of the job!:)
posted by bquarters at 7:25 AM on November 6, 2011

It's funny - I (HS teacher) was reading your question out to my husband (teacher in training) and our close friend (MS teacher) last night and we talked a lot about it. I think that our situation is probably different out here in California, but this is what we came up with (addressed to "you" but consider it to apply to your friend, as per your update):

Be smart about social media use. Unsearchable, friend students only after graduation, friend colleagues sparingly and limit them at first until you trust them, etc.

Be aware that when you're in public, there's always a chance you'll see students. I wouldn't care if they saw me with a glass of wine, but I wouldn't want them to see me drunk - so I never go past a glass of wine, and really, not even that 95% of the time.

Be open with parents and students about being a human being, but default to the "teacher persona." My teacher persona is more extraverted, smiles more, makes far more small talk, and never talks much about herself.

My teacher persona plays "the game" better. I used to think the key thing is to make people see your competence so that nothing else matters. But now I know that it's only about half the battle. If you're competent, it saves you from some scrutiny, but I was let go from two schools where my students' results were better than anyone else and where my students, parents, and colleagues loved me. I have learned to hold my cards closer to my chest and not talk about frustrations with anyone I don't trust. I don't put anything in email any more - face-to-face or nothing. At my current school, the game doesn't really matter. But I've been at five schools in eight years, and it's the only school I've found where that's the case.

As to the pot, there's no good way to mask the smell on your hands, phone, clothes, etc. So figure out how you're going to address it when it comes up. Because it will. I have never smoked, but I had a colleague who used it for medical reasons, and he had a really uncomfortable situation where he had to explain it to a room full of teenagers who hated him because of his "hypocrisy" and he lost all his ethos with them.

I guess it all comes down to the school community in which you work. You should be able to find a school where what's in the classroom matters more than what you get up to during off hours. I don't worry about it nearly as much now as I did in the first few years when I was really young. I think that's the danger area. From age 21 to 25 I had trouble finding a good balance. Now it's easier.

Teaching is an amazing profession, and I applaud you for taking it on. I wouldn't worry about it too much, but this is definitely a time to get your "ducks in a row" and clean up your social media presence, figure out the pot issue, and make smart choice about how you are seen in public. Feel free to memail me - I'll also be happy to talk to your friend via email if he has questions.
posted by guster4lovers at 11:06 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

It completely depends on school culture. I'm in a school in the sf bay area. I know many teachers who smoke weed, and a few who are openly gay (told their students and parents on back to school night). Many are fb friends with former students and some are fb friends with current students. Of course we are all professional while at work, and to my knowledge those who are fb friends with students don't post over-the-top photos of themselves or updates.

Also strongly seconding lalalana's comment: "...you will sacrifice your private life [because]...you will not have time to have one. That's a real reality of teaching. If you're not willing to put in the time to pay your dues, you won't be a very good teacher or a very happy one."

I've found it to be completely worth it, but definitely something you want to be prepared for. Good luck!
posted by mathtime! at 6:47 PM on November 6, 2011

A school administrator told me he had fired at least one person each year over Facebook for the last 5 years. Facebook = not your friend. Even if you delete stuff, it's still cached.

And schools have drug dogs.

There are indeed legitimate concerns here.
posted by Elagabalus at 10:33 PM on November 6, 2011

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