Business Casual: Days Of Wine And Facebook

Probably because I once taught at a parochial school in New Orleans that provided a cash bar for PTA meetings so parents could buy drinks for their children’s teachers – nuns included, I’m having a little trouble with the flap over the young Barrow County teacher who posted Facebook pictures of herself holding a glass of wine.

Teachers are an awfully easy target for people who are frustrated with various aspects of the educational system, and it often seems that the more we need good teachers, the tougher we make things for them: furloughs, pay freezes, larger class sizes and sometimes unrealistic expectations.

Ashley Payne is suing the Barrow County school district, which employed her as a high school teacher. She has said she was called into her principal’s office early in the school year and told her Facebook posting was inappropriate for a teacher and that she should resign, which she did.

She has also said her Facebook page was off limits to students and pointed out that the photos in question were taken on a summer trip to Europe – not while she was on the job or likely to come into contact with her students.

The school board is apparently reviewing and revising its policy on teacher behavior, as are other boards throughout the state, no doubt. The Barrow website, under the listing “professional ethics,” says that teachers should adhere to the state Code of Ethics. The state code indicates, basically, that teachers should refrain from the use of “alcohol or illegal or unauthorized drugs during the course of professional practice.”

Hard to think any rational human being would argue with that. Still, it is interesting that the state policy apparently lumps alcohol use, which is not illegal, in with drug use, which is.

According to the Barrow website, as of December, the school board policy for first-time conviction of drug use or distribution may result in only a two-month suspension. That’s less harsh than losing a job entirely.

If you are a teacher, are you better off being arrested for illegal drug activity than having a glass of wine while you are on vacation?

Why can’t a teacher have a drink on her own time, far away from the school where she teaches, so long as she is not drinking to excess or encouraging underage students to drink, or driving when she has had too much to drink? If she has signed a contract specifically agreeing not to drink, as a condition of employment, that is one thing; but if she is being subjected to someone’s overly zealous interpretation of a rather vague and ambiguous code of ethics, that’s something entirely different.

And, sorry to raise the specter of ageism and sexism, but I think it’s relevant: Would a 50-year-old male teacher who posted a photo of himself with a glass in his hand have been treated the same way? Any chance that Payne’s youth and gender played a part in the way she was treated? Maybe not, but you have to wonder if the fact that she is an attractive young woman, fairly close in age to some of her high school students, may have influenced those who suggested she behaved improperly.

Facebook is largely a young person’s game – there are a few of us in the senior division whose kids have shamed us into signing on, but it’s fair to say that younger people are most likely to use Facebook to communicate. It’s possible that some older authorities are a little puzzled by the phenomenon.

The whole issue of public and private behavior and who is a role model when and under what circumstances is a tricky one, made even trickier by the proliferation of social media.

Of course, teachers have an obligation to behave responsibly, but I’m not convinced that having a beer or a glass of wine away from the job and away from students constitutes irresponsible behavior.

In hindsight I bet Payne wishes she hadn’t posted the photos. But I would also bet you that she’s not the only public school teacher in Georgia who has been photographed with a wineglass in her hand.

At the long-ago PTA meetings in New Orleans, when parents were handing me drinks, I felt uncomfortable and poured them out – into a potted palm tree, I am sorry to say; but there were plenty of other teachers who didn’t.

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