Give the "drunken pirate" teacher a break!

Putting embarrassing pictures online isn't a firing offense. It's a way of life.


Farhad Manjoo
May 7, 2008 12:24AM (UTC)

To judge by her performance evaluations, Stacy Snyder was well on her way to becoming a great teacher.

During her training at Millersville University in Central Pennsylvania, Snyder's professors gave the 27-year-old student high marks for her professionalism and classroom conduct, marveling over the way she prepared lesson plans and engaged students.

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But then her professors found Snyder's MySpace page. There, they saw a publicly accessible picture that bore the caption "drunken pirate," and showed Snyder in a pirate hat drinking from a plastic cup.

A Millersville administrator told Snyder that posting the picture was "unprofessional." The school refused to grant Snyder a bachelor of science in education degree and stripped her of her teaching certificate; she was allowed, instead, to graduate with a bachelor of arts degree, which is insufficient to secure teaching credentials in Pennsylvania.

Snyder has filed suit against the school; you can read an excerpt of her complaint at The Smoking Gun.

Millersville University denies that it dismissed Snyder for the MySpace picture alone. The school contends that she performed poorly as a teacher, and that the MySpace picture was "the straw that broke the camel's back." That story is hard to square with the list of glowing recommendations that Snyder produces in her complaint.

The school's defense suggests that it's wised up, and perhaps understands, now, that it would have been completely ridiculous to dismiss Snyder for what she did on MySpace.

Because in addition to being an apparently great teacher and a single mother of two, Stacy Snyder is, like the vast majority of teachers, a human being. And posting photos of oneself in potentially unbecoming poses isn't just the pastime anymore of uncivilized drunken perverts without decency who ought to be kept away from children at all costs. It is, increasingly, something all of us do, and there'll come a time, soon, when no one can honestly claim that there's nothing untoward about us on the Web.

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Why not? Because people like to have fun. And adults -- and Snyder was over the legal drinking age when these photos were taken -- sometimes like to have fun in specifically adult ways, sometimes involving booze and boobs and butts and ... better not enumerate here, but you get the picture. Indeed, you've seen the picture.

It's entirely appropriate for people to have fun this way. But for fear of harming the children -- whom parents hope will not want to one day have such fun -- adults are usually encouraged to keep such things behind closed doors.

That used to be easy. It no longer is. In fact, because we live, increasingly, in an age of instant documentation and broadcast, it's nearly impossible to hide these things from the kids.

As I pointed out after the leak last September of nude photos of "High School Musical" star Vanessa Hudgens, tech trends today almost guarantee that sometime in your life, you'll be photographed without your clothes on: "Unless you're a nevernude, I'll bet you an iPhone there'll be some moment in your life in which a camera, your naked body, and an implacable sense of joie de vivre will come together to produce, without the least bit of planning, a nude photo."

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There's an even greater chance that you'll be captured with your clothes on doing something that is just marginally wrong -- say, wearing a funny hat while drinking from a plastic cup.

And nevermind photos! There's an embarrassment of purely textual detail about you online. Your Match.com profile, for instance, might list your romantic and/or sexual interests, and your blog probably describes your political affiliation.

Young people today -- and that's who new teachers are, young people -- live on the Internet. Every moment of their lives, from their first poop to their high school talent show solos to their Spring Break jaunts, is captured and posted online.

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If we took Millersville University's approach, very few people would be allowed to enter the workforce. And that doesn't seem quite fair in a country with a president who once flipped off a TV camera.

Will it ruin children to see their teachers acting this way? Will one of Stacy Snyder's students see her MySpace page and become morally unmoored? Or will a kid have trouble following Snyder's lesson plan, knowing that, at one point, the teacher wore a silly hat?

That may happen, though it seems doubtful. The thing is, though, there's no avoiding it. As ABC News points out, you can already find many teachers who say things or are shown doing things online that aren't very kid-appropriate:

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One first-grade teacher listed among her favorite activities "dancing like an a**hole." A Teach for America teacher in New York showed pictures of several friends drinking beer on the subway. A high school teacher in Los Angeles prominently displayed photos of her lying on the beach in a bikini....

Abby, a 23-year-old elementary school teacher in New York, described "excessive drinking" as a favorite activity on her Facebook page and had a "bumper sticker" that said "let's drink so much we hate ourselves in the morning."

But remember, 20-year-olds were doing pretty much the same things two and three decades ago, too. We shouldn't hold today's youth to a higher standard just because their actions are easier to document.


Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

MORE FROM Farhad Manjoo

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