Why the Surreptitious Recording of Teachers Does Much More Harm than Good


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.


5 thoughts on “Why the Surreptitious Recording of Teachers Does Much More Harm than Good

  1. Pingback: Why the Surreptitious Recording of Teachers Is Does Much More Harm than Good | Ohio Higher Ed

  2. Unfortunately this is nonsense resulting from being out of touch with reality. Technology has placed virtually limitless recording capability in the hands of every citizen of every country. There are huge benefits to that, in terms of detecting and punishing crime, holding those who detect and punish crime to account, or checking unpleasant regimes. And there are serious downsides to it. But none of that matters, because it is the reality of the world we live in. To argue that a teacher, or anyone in a public space or sharing a room with another human being, has any reasonable expectation of not being recorded, is not a political position, it is just naive.

    • …because, Robert, young people full of patriotism and inspired by imperfectly-understood ideologies all have the potential to act unwisely, sometimes disastrously, on those notions (Deutsches Jungvolk in der Hitler Jugend, remember?), and we are wrong to enable them to do so unchecked. Besides, let’s look at this from a practical point of view: recording or videotaping a theatrical or musical performance, especially for the purpose of sharing it, is illegal. The people who are sitting in the theater have paid to be there, and also the performers are entitled to compensation for their work. Even if my students are having a wonderful time in class, the university should not wink at the idea of taping class sessions for the purpose of sharing them in full or in part. The policy now, at least where I teach, is that a student who wishes to record all or part of a class asks my permission to do so (usually the reason for the request is connected to the learning process, such as an ESL student who wants to be able to replay the class for sentences only partly understood the first time through, or a student who recently told me she was still recovering from a severe head injury and had trouble remembering….). Those students “surreptitiously” recording are not intending to replay the class for their better understanding of the material; they are intending to take statements out of context for the purpose of “turning in” (as one website has it) teachers they believe are trying to make them think unpleasant things. To object to this practice is NOT to be “out of touch with reality”; it is to uphold academic freedom for students and teachers alike.

      • This reply is indicative of the problem of being out of touch with reality. How you feel about the ethics of it is irrelevant. There is no way to stop it and therefore anyone who speaks on the assumption they are not being recorded is naive and foolish. Anything else is screaming into the wind.
        And just think about the dangerous ways this advocacy can be used. You cannot stop the recording so the only thing you can do is punish people who subsequently reveal they have done it. You cannot even stop them publishing, multi-million dollar copyright holders of entertainment properties cannot do that. So what then? A student records a physical/sexual assault and turns the evidence over to the police – so the the University punishes the student for ‘surreptitiously’ recording? Do you insist states pass laws making that evidence inadmissable?
        No, this is just silly. You are going to be recorded. You can reasonably ask your institution to dismiss out of hand accusations which depend on taking your speech out of context, and to vigorously defend your independence of speech in teaching – but those have nothing to do with whether or not you are recorded, they would equally apply to a complaint based on a students memory. The world has changed and luddite reactions to it are neither helpful nor appropriate from people employed for their clafity of thinking.

  3. As a college professor I actually state on my syllabi that I do not permit recordings of any kind in my classroom. I as advised by an attorney that doing so provides some protection. For instance, if a student did secretly videotape me and then posted it on YouTube, I could more easily get a cease and desist because my syllabus made it clear that I did not permit it. I agree that we ought to realize we might be recorded anyway, but nevertheless such an explicit statement can be a good idea and provide some recourse. I tend not to fear that it is some *political* speech that will be recorded and publicized or denounced. I actually attended a teaching and learning conference where a presenter showed a YouTube video of horrible teaching techniques– surreptitiously recorded by a student in that teacher’s class and posted to YouTube! I really can’t stand the idea of being used as an example of how not to teach at an academic conference!

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