Secretly Falling in Love: America's Love Affair with Controlling the Hearts and Minds of Public School Teachers

By Shotwell, Kristin D. | Journal of Law and Education, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Secretly Falling in Love: America's Love Affair with Controlling the Hearts and Minds of Public School Teachers


Shotwell, Kristin D., Journal of Law and Education


I. INTRODUCTION

American schools began as Protestant institutions' and for many decades, teaching was almost exclusively a female profession.2 The schools' Christian origins, rigid gender roles, and obsolete legal doctrines combined to create a stringent moral code for teachers that regulated highly personal aspects of a teacher's private conduct.3 For instance, a typical early twentieth century teaching contract forbade female teachers from riding in cars with men who were not their relatives, secretly marrying, or falling in love.4

The history of American schools is largely a history of a Protestant institution.5 While modern schools are increasingly secular, the Protestant influences persist. Major curriculum and student conduct battles were fought in the last century so that now, any hint of religion is regarded as suspicious in public schools.6 However, Judeo-Christian standards of moral conduct have continued to control the private lives of public school teachers.

For instance, recently, a Florida teacher started his class by performing a thirty-second magic trick.7 He thought it would be a good way to get the students' attention, but he was discharged after parents accused him of "wizardry."8 In Arizona, a local news station aired a segment encouraging parents to conduct their own cyber-sleuthing to discover as much as possible about the private lives of their children's teachers.9

In 1890, when modern technology was in its infancy, Justice Brandeis cautioned that "numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that 'what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.'"10 But respect for teachers' privacy has lagged behind respect for other citizens' privacy because of the long history of community-prescribed conduct and identity for teachers. And today, communities can monitor their teachers in infinite ways.

Recent technological advances like the Internet have ushered in a new era of public scrutiny of the private lives of school teachers, marked by the ease of obtaining information. Now teachers are facing renewed intrusions into their private lives from parents and community members seeking to monitor their private, off-duty conduct through the use of the social networking web sites, online public records, and drug testing requirements.11

Justifying encroachment on teachers' privacy rights because teachers are expected to act as role models is not only an historical problem. Even in this era of increasing recognition of individual liberty and privacy,12 the public continually circumscribes teachers' private conduct as new social problems manifest in public schools.13

This article explores restrictions on teachers' lives in the historical context of American public schools as religious institutions created to inculcate children with Christian values, teaching as an historically female profession, and America's information-addicted culture in which citizens have come to demand, in fact, feel entitled to increasing amounts of information about teachers' private conduct.

Section II offers an historical perspective on how the Protestant foundation of American public schools, the feminization of teaching, and women's lack of legal identity contributed to a stringent moral code for teachers, which regulated many aspects of their private lives. Section III discusses the Morrison v. State Board of Education nexus requirement that mandates disciplinary agencies make a fitness-to-teach determination before discharging teachers for immoral conduct. Section IV argues that courts have not lived up to the promise Morrison offered, especially when the notoriety of the teachers' alleged conduct satisfies the nexus requirement. Section V argues that continuing to allow community control over teachers' private lives hinders legitimate pedagogical goals of teaching tolerance in our increasingly secular and pluralistic society and puts schools officials at risk of violating teachers' constitutional rights. …

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