POSTED BY MARTIN KICH
At the beginning of September, Jonathan Zimmerman wrote an article for Salon titled “Don’t Tape Our Teachers: Why Surreptitious Recording in the Classroom Isn’t OK.”
Zimmerman surveys a number of recent instances in which teachers have expressed strong political opinions that have surreptitiously been recorded by students, that have then been posted to social media where they have provoked outrage, and that have ultimately led to the teachers’ either resigning or being suspended of fired.
Zimmerman notes that in most cases, school administrators and boards have indicated concerns about the teachers’ behavior but not about the surreptitious recordings of the teachers. In response, he states:
The teacher should be disciplined if she was trying to slant her students against President Trump, which violates her professional duty to educate rather than propagandize. But students should also be prevented from surreptitiously recording in our schools, which deprives teachers of their professional discretion. It’s a vicious circle. We don’t put enough trust in our teachers, so we empower students to spy on them. And every time a teacher violates her professional trust, the campaign to spy on teachers gets stronger.
Zimmerman ultimately provides some historical perspective:
If you believe otherwise, consider what happened to California teacher Virginia Franklin in 1963. With the Cold War still blazing, Franklin had come under fire from the American Legion for assigning articles that criticized as well as praised U.S. nuclear policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. “She tells the students, ‘Here’s democracy and here’s communism. Choose what is right,’ a local Legion commander complained. “I don’t believe we should do that in this country. There’s too much chance of influencing the wrong way in the classroom.”
“In other words, he didn’t trust Franklin to teach in a fair and honest fashion. So her foes sent a student into her classroom to secretly tape her. In those distant days before cellphones, the student hid a tape recorder inside a hollowed-out textbook.
But the move backfired. Local citizens were so outraged by the secret spying on Franklin that they voted down a conservative slate of school board candidates, electing a board that firmly backed her. ‘Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus—to be found in the essential integrity and fair play demonstrated by the people,’ exulted one school official.”
After reviewing the more recent cases in comparison to that case, Zimmerman asks what has changed so decisively between then and now:
So why doesn’t the secret recording of teachers today generate similar outrage? One big reason, of course, is that we’ve all become more accustomed to intrusions on our privacy. When everyone carries a tape recorder in their pocket, many people simply assume that they might be taped and recorded.
But our classrooms are different—or at least they should be. We can’t expect our teachers to do their job well if they are always looking over their shoulders, wondering which of their comments might be broadcast to the world. They need the freedom to explore that world—in all its complexity and controversy—with their students.
With freedom comes responsibility, of course. Teachers have a right to share their opinions, but they must identify them as opinions rather than as the gospel truth. And most of all, teachers must make it clear that their students don’t have to agree with them.
In Zimmerman’s view, a teacher who does not have that freedom “will become a paid mouthpiece, not a real professional.”
He quotes Virginia Franklin’s concern about the “’lack of respect for the teacher’s role as a member of a profession.’”
And he himself closes:
In our own difficult political moment, teachers need to recommit themselves to letting students make up their own minds. And the rest of us need to trust our teachers, and listen to them. Just not on tape.
Zimmerman’s complete article is available at: http://www.salon.com/2017/09/03/dont-tape-our-teachers-why-surreptitious-recording-in-the-classroom-isnt-ok.
P.S. In this article and others on the topic that I have read, a consistently understated or completely unacknowledged revelation that I myself have found shocking is that some of the surreptitious recordings have been done by students in elementary school and middle school. I suppose that that revelation may amount to good news on increasing digital literacy and ultimately provide a bounty of candidates for our intelligence services. But, it does not seem like good news for us as a society that children are mastering technological tools before they can possibly understand the complex ethical issues involved in using them.