Private schools, social media, and the courage to teach

June 12, 2013 § 2 Comments

The Courage to Teach is a book by the writer and educator Parker Palmer. It was published in 1998 and is a reflection on the challenges of teaching and what makes for good teachers. The book is not a technical overview of best practices but a reflective, at times spiritual, meditation on the fears and joys and ups and downs that all teachers face.

Its title has a new meaning today given the rise of social media and the ways that the Internet has altered every facet of education.

To be a teacher today — one who truly cares — does require courage. To be a teacher today is to be vulnerable in new ways to new threats. More and more, students are taking to the Internet — to Facebook, Twitter,  YouTube, and venues I’ve probably never heard of — to broadcast their frustration with a teacher or school. Today, if a student is upset with a grade or a class, he or she can now set up a fake social media account, perhaps posing as a teacher or principal, and say and promote some nasty stuff. One high school student recently filmed another student walking out of a classroom while berating their teacher, reprimanding her for not being inspirational. It was posted on YouTube and within a few hours had hundreds of thousands of hits. People all over the country — people who don’t teach, who don’t know the teacher being surreptitiously filmed, who have no clue about the class, the assignments, or the unique dynamics of that particular school — chimed in to congratulate the student. It became Exhibit A in what is wrong with our schools.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

It was appalling, not only because these students posted the video online, but because so many people took no thought of sharing and liking the video. I wanted to shout: would you subject your job to such scrutiny? Do you know what you’re doing when you support stuff like this?

Good people — good teachers — can have their careers ended or their reputations ruined for no legitimate reason, the result of a few impulsive students who might carry a grudge. Imagine the impact this could have. It’s already hard enough to recruit teachers. But now a potential teacher might say, “If I alienate a student, my entire career could be destroyed because of one or two students and their supporters on Facebook who, although they have never met me or stepped foot in my classroom, have decided that I’m part of the problem and should be publicly criticized.”

Let me add an important qualification: the vast majority of students I interact with are kind and responsible and do not take to the Internet to vent. My guess is that most high schools fare similarly, at least Catholic high schools. On the whole, we have great and supportive families, and they make our jobs a lot easier. But it’s not a numbers game. All it takes is one student with a mean streak to make life really, really difficult.

Schools are going to have to respond. Without unfairly encroaching upon student freedom or adopting a “Big Brother” posture, schools have to make it clear that they will defend their teachers, that they will not allow students to mock the school or the faculty through social media. Schools, too, must be more active in motivating parents to track what their children are doing online. I have already written extensively about that, but I’m still floored by how many parents let their children roam freely on the Internet, never finding out what they are posting or what they are doing on Facebook or Twitter.

Fortunately, Catholic high schools have more freedom to respond because they are private schools. The First Amendment does not restrict Catholic high schools the way it does public schools (and that because the First Amendment’s protections apply only to government entities). Students at private schools don’t have the same rights to post whatever they want. If a student at a private school mocks a teacher or a fellow student through social media, the school generally has a lot more freedom to suspend or expel a student or take other actions to protect the dignity of the campus culture.

At the same time, Catholic schools cannot be too quick to suspend or expel. We cannot blame students for being caught in a culture that they did not choose. It is part of our mission to form the consciences of young men and women and to teach them responsible, virtuous behaviors, online and elsewhere. We cannot expect students to arrive on campus already formed. One of the major tasks for the Catholic school of today is to help students navigate the expanding empire of social media.

Before returning to Jesuit education, I practiced law, and I remain intrigued by the ways that courts are responding to the intersection of campus life and social media. A post on that could take hours, so I’ll spare readers. While there aren’t many cases involving private schools (because the First Amendment isn’t implicated), there are a number of fascinating cases involving social media and public schools that show the contours of the challenges and the political and constitutional issues that arise.

Brian D. Wassom, an attorney in Michigan, has an excellent web site keeping people updated on developments in this area. Check out his overview of private schools and social media as well as his rundown of cases involving public schools. It’s very informative and user-friendly for the non-lawyer.

Related links:

“Social Media and Student Speech in Colleges and Universities” (from


Posted by Matt Emerson.

Related posts:

Ignatian Education in the Age of YouTube


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§ 2 Responses to Private schools, social media, and the courage to teach

  • bdwassom says:

    Thanks, Matt! You’ve got quite an impressive blog here yourself.

  • memerson says:

    Thanks Brian. You have a fine site yourself. Let me know if you’re ever speaking out west. I think there are some areas for collaboration and some good dialogue to be had between education and law.

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