Professional roles and private lives: How separate are they?

The Daily Mail likes to ‘out’ teachers as porn stars. It did so again last week. The standard response to the discovery that a teacher stars in adult films or ‘moonlights’ as a stripper is to sack him or her, even if (as in one case) two decades have elapsed since involvement in the adult entertainment industry. The thing is, as is frequently noted in these teachers’ defense, they haven’t done anything illegal. Moreover, what they were doing was done in their own time. So, what can be the justification for dismissal? Are they still in the role of teacher at home?

I think there are three possible avenues for justifying dismissal: character assessment, capacity to fulfill role, and duty to be a role model. Personally, I’m not sure if I am convinced by any of them and am keen to hear what you think.

 

Character assessment

It is clear that in some cases a judgment is in fact made that the teacher is someone who engages in immoral behavior and thus is not the sort of person who should be a teacher. The superintendent from the school affected by the most recent case was quoted as saying, ‘maybe it’s not a crime as far as the penal code is concerned but we feel it’s a crime as far as moral turpitude is concerned’. I personally think we should resist basing decisions to dismiss purely on moral evaluations of employees’ personal lives. Individuals are generally entitled to pursue (legal) activities in their own time without fear that their employers will base decisions about their continued employment on these activities.

 

Capacity to fulfill role

The second possibility is that involvement in the adult entertainment industry affects the teacher’s ability to carry out her job. The pupils’ knowledge of Miss’s extracurricular activity will likely affect her ability to maintain discipline and command the pupils’ respect. This is a more promising argument. We make decisions to hire – and to continue to hire – based on the individual’s ability to fulfill the demands of the role. Maintaining discipline in the classroom is crucial to effective teaching and, if this ability is diminished, then an argument could be made that the teacher no longer meets the requirements of the role.

However, there still seems to be a plausible intuition that one’s professional role should not have to extend into one’s private life. This comes to the fore more prominently if we consider hypothetical cases where the teacher is engaged in something less controversial than porn. Imagine Jim, who is a geography teacher by day, but lives for his evening hobby: cheerleading. Jim really enjoys combining fitness with music in the local mixed cheerleading group, although he is the only man taking part this season. Cheering the local football team, Jim is seen by members of his geography class who think they have stuck gold! They now feel like they never have to take him seriously again and Jim’s lessons consequently descend into chaos for the rest of the term. Based on the argument above, it might be legitimate to fire Jim. But, although it is true that he no longer commands the respect he once did, it still seems unfair that his personal hobby could lead to his professional dismissal.

 

Role models and children

One further argument, that straddles both the character assessment and role fulfillment arguments, is that of the duty to be a good role model. This is particularly, although not exclusively, an issue when working with children. Teacher/stripper ‘Johnny Anglais’ alludes to this point: ‘I have done nothing ­illegal. I don’t see why my private life has anything to do with me ­teaching. Some teachers drink too much, some smoke – that makes them bad role models as far as I’m concerned’. For him, the fact that some teachers drink and smoke and don’t get fired is proof that being a good role model isn’t something that is asked of a teacher. I’m not sure this is true. Even if we avoid making a moral evaluation of the teacher’s stripping/smoking/drinking, it is still the case that these are ‘adult’ – and, to an extent, objectively ‘risky’ – behaviors. There could be an argument that whilst we don’t require teachers to be saints, there is an obligation for them not to overtly normalise these behaviors such that the children will not weigh up the risks when they become old enough to drink, smoke or experiment with sex. Normalising male cheerleading, however, is probably fine.

 

Keeping private lives private

I think there is a further issue to be noted about Johnny Anglais’ comment, and I think that in noticing it we get closer to the heart of the matter. Whilst drinking and smoking can be kept within one’s private life, evidence of pornographic stardom is less easily concealed, less easily kept private. If a teacher were to repeatedly come into school drunk, or hungover to an extent that he couldn’t teach properly, then his drinking would become relevant to his professional role. In noticing this, we can perhaps re-frame what is at stake: it is not that professional role is expected to extend into private life but, rather, that there is an obligation not to allow one’s private life to (detrimentally) intrude on one’s professional role. Depending on one’s role, one’s private life will have to be kept more or less private. Those who must command respect and assert authority – the judge, the Sergeant Major, the teacher – will do well to practice discretion. The problem with porn is that it’s just not that discreet…

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4 Responses to Professional roles and private lives: How separate are they?

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    I have been looking at issues of surveillance and transparency, and one thing that is clear is that it is increasingly hard to maintain a separation between private and public life. This is not just because of the spread of the Internet and social media are making information more likely to leak between different personas, but also because they enable collating separate information in interesting ways. In the future every personal quirk will be as public as making porn. But most importantly, they allow saving information for a long time: what you did 20 years ago can come up again with a press of a button – and it is getting easier thanks to automation, for example the imminent spread of face recognition software.

    This makes firing people for having been in porn 20 years ago particularly troubling. Both because no doubt plenty of other good teachers (and other professionals) will get in trouble for something they did decades ago, but also because 20 years is more than enough time for morals to have changed. Societal views on pornography have certainly shifted over the past decades, as have views on homosexuality, privacy, environmental ethics, meat-eating or nearly any topic. This means that we all are potentially in the situation of these teachers: in 20 years time some of our current opinions or activities might be seen as antisocial, immoral or disgusting.

    If we accept firing teachers who have made porn in the past, it seems that we should accept teachers in the future being fired for doing things today we currently find unproblematic (like cheerleading). However, this seems problematic, especially since the enforcement appears highly arbitrary (e.g. the drinking example). Rather, we should want whatever criteria there are for suitability as teacher to be consistent and clear over time. It also behoves us to increase our tolerance of activities that do no harm: without that, we are all going to be in trouble in 20 years.

  • David Frame says:

    Was Ms Halas a good teacher? I don’t suppose the Mail could care less, but I’d hope that was what the parents & school cared about.

    Personally I think the whole idea of teachers as role models** is a load of bollocks. Charles Barkley was right about this stuff – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8vh2MwXZ6o And, extending his argument, I firmly believe that just because someone can teach about consequentialism, calculus or chaos theory doesn’t mean they ought to have any obligations in terms of “setting a good example” or other such Victoriana. The last thirty years of education policy have made it blisteringly clear that we’re all just atomised little labour units buying and selling in a market. Cool. I can see how that works… but don’t then try to backload moral obligations onto that structure. It’s as hollow as modern professional football trying to stress the value of “loyalty”.

    **It’s fairly new, isn’t it? I don’t remember hearing the phrase until ~1990.

    Plus… I think kids (over the age of say 10) are far smarter and shreweder than adults ever give them credit for. They’ll look up to some people and not to others for a range of reasons, and moral uprightness is a quality that appeals to some and not to others. Personally, of all the teachers I had I found the Earnest Worthies to be the most tedious.

  • Joe Bonar says:

    I personally find the idea of firing someone for behavior they engage in privately to be patently absurd.

    First, your private life is only a reflection of your character insofar as it pertains to criminality. Moral requirements are completely arbitrary in nature as ethical systems are all subjective. Objective morals have yet to be identified and as such the only objective way to measure one’s character in terms of employment viability is to judge them by legal standards. Consider this scenario: a teacher wears a dress that’s a little too short for the fundamentalist evangelical christian superintendent to a private social function thrown by a colleague to which they’re all invited, so he fires her. If we allow the argument that one’s superiors’ morality can be used to judge one’s character, then we allow all sorts of absurdity like this. What if the teacher likes to go to strip clubs? Is that a sufficient violation of some random person’s arbitrary ethical code? The idea that you can fire someone for any random reason so long as it is claimed as a violation of some ethical system (consider the ethics of discordianism and then reconsider this) is completely irrational and baseless. You can’t just take your own narrow view of the world and superimpose it onto everyone else’s life. It’s really just that simple. I mean sure, you can try, but you will fail because people will always be in violation of some random ethical standard. If your behavior is criminal, then you are subjecting innocent people to the whims of someone who can be demonstrated to not follow established guidelines, and as such you have objective evidence that they are likely to break other established guidelines giving you good cause to fire them, otherwise, you’re just being a prude.

    Second, unless your private life causes you injury or sufficiently distracts you from your ability to perform your required duties, then honestly who cares. The argument that the students might find out and the class will then assuredly fall into chaos is the same BS argument we’d use in debate; “Premise X suggests lack of absolute control over possible future events, if we do not have absolute control over all possible future events then we will most assuredly fall into nuclear war (through X weakness, usually something to do with lack of encryption leading to hacking leading to nukes being launched by kids in their parents basement), therefore premise x cannot be allowed to be true.” The idea that children are able to magically manipulate adults into doing whatever they want because they know something that said adult doesn’t want them to know is ridiculous, and anyone who thinks that has obviously never attended a public school in which not every teacher was perfect because I can assure you that everyone I know knows something terrible about some random teacher (several of our high school teachers smoked pot regularly with students, some drank, some bought students cigarettes, some were gay and married, etc., and my town isn’t even that big), usually through direct observation or participation. Yet these teachers were able to maintain discipline in the classroom, so I would suggest that all evidence points to this premise being completely and unabashedly wrong. Further, if the person is an adult film star whose material is currently in distribution, then it is completely unlikely to affect them if their students did find out, and, how are these kids going to know that their teacher was in a porn unless their parents showed/told them, or they were looking up porn. Either way, the parenting is less than stellar in that household and firing someone over their personal lives is still completely absurd and baseless.

    Third, if your role model was one of your teachers, then chances are it wasn’t the teacher who was in the porn, or showed up to class drunk, or strips on the side, because you’d be someone who has always wanted to teach, and the teacher you idolize is probably not perfect, but they sure present themselves that way, and the other teachers don’t even factor into the equation outside of how their interactions with you shape your personal experience. As such, the role model argument is tired and dated. No public figure has any obligation to be a role model unless their duties specifically require it, e.g., public role models. Cops have no more obligation to be role models than anyone else, neither do teachers, politicians, or anyone else. Their jobs are entirely distinct from that domain. Cops don’t have to be nice, their busy dealing with human trash, they just have to not turn into human trash themselves. Teachers are their to teach you about their subject, not about how to be a good person (unless of course that is their subject), you’re supposed to learn things like that from your parents. Politicians just have to get re-elected, other than that, they don’t have to do ANYTHING (literally, nothing). So long as you don’t break the law in a way that interferes with your job (e.g., if you’re going to get arrested for public intox, make sure you don’t have to work the next day before going out, don’t be a drug dealer, don’t traffic in human slaves, etc.) then who cares? Oh, they parked in a handicap zone, that means they’re inconsiderate of others’ needs, which means they’re totally unsuitable as a math teacher now because they just needed to use the bathroom after a long road trip, we’d better fire them for sure. The whole argument is exactly the same as the argument for character assessment based on arbitrary morality. Who defines what a good role model even is in the first place? Is the person doing the firing a good role model? If not, why do they get to keep their job? If all these other people are supposed to be good role models, why shouldn’t everyone be a role model? Since there’s no good reason not to make everyone a role model, we should all set an arbitrarily defined good example and expose every dark secret in our pasts. Oh, wait, now nobody is a good role model and we all get fired because ain’t nobody perfect. The whole idea that it becomes a special case when the person for whom the example is being set is a child is also completely arbitrary. Children are exposed daily to far worse things in schools than finding out that the teacher is/was a porn star, and as far as I can tell, society is relatively ok. Firing people over such infantile and arbitrary things is just completely absurd.

    I’m glad you posted this article, it was entertaining in the way only something you find rationally repugnant can be entertaining.

  • Julia Wise says:

    My grandmother lost her teaching job in 1930s Alabama for getting married. Female teachers had to be single (not because getting married was bad, but because single women supposedly needed jobs more than married ones). We now find it absurd to fire someone for their marital status. I think in the future details about teacher’s sex lives will be treated as irrelevant to their work lives.

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