Can your school district dictate what you do in your free time? Learn what off-campus actions have caused teachers to lose their jobs.

Can schools demand teachers live their lives a certain way, even while they’re away from school? You may think that what happens after school and off school grounds has nothing to do with your job as a teacher — but think twice! Teachers can be disciplined or dismissed for off-campus activity.

In the early days of America’s public schools, local communities had complete control over the school, its curriculum, and its teachers. The school was an extension of the local community. People in the community often shared the responsibility of boarding the local teacher. The teacher’s life inside and outside the classroom was kept under close scrutiny. Teachers were held to a higher standard of behavior, morals, and ethics. They were expected to actively participate in community volunteer work, but they were not expected to have influence in community decisions. They were volunteers, not decision makers. Some community members may have engaged in drinking, smoking, and gambling, but historical evidence shows the pervasiveness of regulations prohibiting teachers from doing the same.

In those days, teachers’ lives were controlled both in and out of school. Schools were not operated with professional oversight. Today, times have changed. Policy is set at the local, state, and federal levels. The Supreme Court has afforded public school employees with constitutional protections against arbitrary decisions and protected their freedom of speech and personal privacy.

Teaching is not like driving rivets. It is not merely the rote, mechanical conveyance of factual information from one mind to another. Teaching is the shaping of young minds, the cultivation of a precious resource. – Rogliano v. Fayette City Board of Education (W.Va. 1986)

But, despite all that, you can’t deny that a teacher’s behavior may have an effect on students and the school in general. The community no longer has complete control of a teacher’s life, but there are boundaries and responsibilities to be aware of. Even today, what you do outside of school may have an impact on your career.

Public school teachers are afforded constitutional protections from state action. These rights come from state and federal constitutions. Since public schools are state entities, constitutional restrictions on state actions protect teachers and other employees. The courts support teachers’ rights to privacy, but there are limits. Their constitutional rights to privacy have to be balanced with the reality that they have been hired to work with students who may be affected by a teacher’s behavior.

Freedom of speech outside of the school

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects our right to speak out. Generally, school districts cannot fire teachers because a teacher uses a constitutionally protected right to free speech. However, this does not mean that teachers are free to say or write anything they wish. Rather, the courts attempt to balance the rights of the teacher against the harm caused to the school.

You may think your influence remains within the corners of your building. It doesn’t. As Supreme Court Justice Powell wrote in 1979 in Amback v. Norwick, “A teacher serves as a role model for his students, exerting a subtle but important influence over their perceptions and values. … A teacher has an opportunity to influence the attitudes of students toward government, the political process, and a citizen’s social responsibilities; his influence is crucial to the continued good health of a democracy.”

A teacher’s right to speak out on issues of public concern is clearly protected. For example, a teacher who writes a letter to the editor of the local newspaper during the political debate and vote on a tax referenda would have a constitutionally protected right to speak out since taxes are a matter of public concern.

On the other hand, when teachers speak out publicly about school issues that are not a matter of public concern, they may not be protected by the First Amendment and could be disciplined if the speech is disruptive to the school or insubordinate to the administration. A teacher who writes a letter to that same local paper about a school policy requiring teachers to remain on campus during the school day, even during times when they are not in class, would not be protected as a matter of public concern. The difference is that the school policy is an internal issue.

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