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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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May092007

Avast Ye Knee-Jerk Reactions, Matey!

A pre-service teacher has been denied obtaining her teaching degree because her MySpace profile featured a photo of her with an alcoholic beverage in hand, including the caption “Drunken Pirate.” Pirate or not, she’s suing the university, and generating a huge online debate on how to balance educational professionalism, online responsibility and appropriate punishments.

Stacey Snyder drunken pirate photoStacey Snyder, a college student and mother of two pursuing her teaching degree at Millersville University, found herself in hot water because of a photo displayed on her MySpace account. As first reported by The Smoking Gun a couple of weeks ago, Snyder had posted a photo depicting her in a pirate hat drinking from a plastic cup. She’s not doing anything else in the photo. Below the picture were the words “Drunken Pirate,” though there’s no way to tell on the actual state of her inebriation just from looking at the photo. It’s the kind of picture that thousands of students have on their online profiles. And it got Snyder in really big trouble.

When the dean of the university, Jane Bray, got wind of the photo, she concluded that Snyder was not fit to teach young people, so she denied her the teaching degree, awarding her a more generic degree in English. (It’s unknown if the pirate references had any impact on the punishment.) In a statement, the dean argued her decision was appropriate because the photo promoted underage drinking, despite the fact that Snyder was 25 years old at the time. The reason she made this argument, though, was that Snyder may have encouraged some of her students to go to her MySpace page, even after being warned by school administrators not to do so. This is explained in an article published by LancasterOnline.com:

[S]chool district solicitor Howard L. Kelin said Tuesday that criticism of the teachers contained in the lawsuit is unfair….


Snyder was given a poor evaluation based on her performance while teaching at the high school and was warned not to direct students to her MySpace page, which contained the questionable photographs, Kelin said.


Despite being warned to maintain a professional relationship with her students Kelin said, Snyder continued to direct students to her Web page.


“Snyder required ‘significant remediation’ as a teacher, and her evaluation reflected serious performance problems,” Kelin said.

It didn’t take long for that pirate to pull together a crew of peg-leg scalywags - I mean attorneys - to file a $75,000 lawsuit against the the dean and university.

Bloggers haven’t wasted any time in debating Snyder’s predicament. Columnist Barbara Feldman writes on her blog:

Whether you agree with the University’s actions or not, this brings up powerful questions about public postings on MySpace and other websites. I know that teens and students consider those postings their own private space, and rarely consider the implications of having their postings and photos in the public space.


But that aside, do you think that Millersville University did the right thing? Was a pirate photo captioned “Drunken Pirate” sufficiently unprofessional to warrant withholding the teaching degree and certificate?

The Learning Curve, written by a pre-service teacher, argues that while the punishment may have been excessive, Snyder should have known better:

[W]hile I still think she should be awarded her degree, she also should have listened to her superiors. While I don’t feel that communicating with students through your MySpace is necessarily unprofessional, I do think she should have been smarter as to what she shared about herself with her students. If they gave her warning, it was poor judgment for her to continue to do it.

When the story first broke, I must admit I had my own knee-jerk reaction. What were they thinking? Denying a talented young woman her degree because of one stupid photo was crazy! But now that more information is coming out from both sides, I’m beginning to feel very torn about the situation. On the one hand, simply posting a photo of yourself with a drink in hand is hardly a capital offense. Whether we want to admit it or not, educators are people, too and they sometimes are known to socialize in the presence of alcohol. And perhaps at a Halloween party, they might even put on a pirate hat. (Heck, I’d wear a pirate hat for Father’s Day, but that’s just me.)

So an online photo in itself shouldn’t be the end of the world, right? Well, it gets more complex when you put that photo on a website used by your students and you repeatedly show your online profile from that website to your students. Denying her teaching degree altogether does seem excessive to me, but doesn’t sharing that photo with her students through MySpace deserve some kind of administrative response? I wish I knew what that middle ground was, but I don’t. Perhaps it should have been denying her credit for the pre-service field study in which the incident took place. That way, she’s forced to graduate late, but still receives her degree after spending those extra months seeing the error of her ways.

What’s sad about all of this is that it adds more fuel to the fire for those who argue (arrrrgh-ue?) that social networking sites have no place in the classroom. I still see a role for educators to use MySpace and other sites, even if it’s just to have a presence there. That way, students realize that they don’t have the run of the place, and that their teachers aren’t as technologically clueless as they might otherwise think. But when the teacher uses those platforms to post images that might be acceptable for adults but set a bad example for her students, it raises questions. In some ways, I even wonder if Snyder’s age had something to do with it. At 25, she doesn’t look that much older than the high school students she was teaching. Does mere appearance make her photo potentially more influential to students than if she had been middle-aged?

When push comes to shove - over the plank, in this case - there are no winners here. The university looks bad because of a perception they over-reacted in a puritanical way. Snyder looks bad because she was warned about her use of MySpace yet didn’t change her behavior. And MySpace, well, MySpace almost always looks bad, so that’s not really news, but the coverage of the incident reflects poorly on all other uses of social networking sites in an educational context. I don’t know about you, but this salty dog could use a drink. Just check your cameras at the door. -andy

Filed under : People, Policy, Social Networking

Responses

The high school’s response tells their side of the story and includes a (not very) different picture with comments allegedly on the MySpace page. They also allege a history of unprofessionalism on the part of the student teacher with specific mention of unheeded advice about her MySpace page.

This is just one more example of how uptight and self-righteous our country has become. I guarantee you she was probably one of the few teachers in that school the students connected with. Here was a teacher actually showing her students that (A) she liked to party, and (B) she was in tune with the world her students are participating in. Wow, she is human. Of course, she is supposed to lead by example and all that other garbage they brainwash us with as we’re coming up in this world. The coolest teacher I ever had in high school was the one who got arrested for having a hydroponics wonderland in his basement. He wasn’t cool because he got high—he was cool because he spoke to us as if we were real people. “Yes, but there must be some repercussion – she broke the rules,” says, Joe LawAbider. Yeah, well we need people to break the rules or else we’re all going to be a bunch of numb zombies sucking down Soma at the feelies. We talk about rethinking our educational system—what about rethinking the duplicitous value system we continue shoving down our students’ throats?

I see nothing wrong in someone inviting students to their MySpace but if they are going to do so they should see to it that their MySpace area is suitable for that. Is that different to tidying up the house before the in-laws, or the boss, comes to visit? Of course you then get into a discussion about what is suitable but the photo alleged by the high school to have been on the site (not the same photo shown on Andy’s blog) was dubious.

Having said that, the punishment meted out by the university seems out of all proportion. Student teachers often do unwise things and if every one of those unwise things was punished in this way there wouldn’t be many teachers graduating!

As Andy Carvin writes; “There are no winners here”.

Would it be appropriate for a teacher to go drinking after work in the bar across the street from his school? Would it be wise?

There is a wisdom that comes with experience in teaching, a certain wariness that helps good teachers avoid situations like this one. As Henry Giroux argues, teachers are public intellectuals. We want to be respected, we want to be well-paid, we want to be listened to. Well, that respect comes at a price. We all made mistakes like this at one time or another in our careers; too bad this woman’s turned out to be career-ending.

There was a great article on a similar subject over at CNN a while back — about how young professionals are learning the hard way that pictures on Facebook and other similar sites posted during their college years may end up costing them jobs later. I used the article in my 7th and 8th grade Tech Literacy classes to talk about some of the less obvious facets of online safety — and to raise the stakes for creating safe online personae — in our unit last month.

But here’s some irony: Our school district blocks the very WORD “m*space”, so although my professional responsibilities encourage me to use this and other stories to discuss the subject, since you file-named the picture with the “MYstery word” I can’t pass this along to our teachers OR to my classes to help illuminate the subject better. Darn lost teachable moments…

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