Connecticut Teacher Fired Over Myspace Page


Another contentious Myspace profile, another legal debacle. The rundown, courtesy of Mediashift:

Jeffrey Spanierman, a teacher at Emmett O'Brien High School in Ansonia, Connecticut, created a MySpace page, ostensibly "to communicate with students about homework, to learn more about the students so he could relate to them better, and to conduct casual, non-school related discussions." One of Spanierman's school colleagues became concerned about the page, which she said contained, among other things, pictures of naked men with "inappropriate comments" underneath them. She was also concerned about the nature of the personal conversations that the teacher was having with the students, and she convinced Spanierman to remove the page, which she considered "disruptive to students." Spanierman subsequently created a new MySpace page, however, that included similar content and similar personal communications with students. When the colleague learned of the new page, she reported it to the school administration, which placed Spanierman on administrative leave and ultimately declined to renew his teaching contract for the following year. After hearings that he attended with his union representative and later with his attorneys, he received a letter stating that he had "exercised poor judgment as a teacher."

Spanierman contested the grounds for his dismissal, alleging that the school violated rights guaranteed him by the First and 14th Amendments, but the U.S. District Court of Connecticut rejected both claims. The legalese protecting tenured and non-tenured Connecticut public school teachers is beyond my expertise, so I'll avoid weighing in on whether or not Spanierman's contract was violated. And due to the appalling precedent established by the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case, it's tough to argue that Spanierman's First Amendment rights were violated.

But there's a better way to go about contesting his firing—by arguing that Myspace and other social networking technologies are an integral component of education reform. After all, a million Mark Bauerlein books (excellent reason.tv interview here) aren't going to keep students away from the Internet, so why not turn Myspace, Facebook, and other online applications into teaching tools?

At Inside Higher Ed, Andy Guess reported on a Facebook application that communicates information from Blackboard (an online interactive syllabus), in effect, reaching "students even when they're trying to avoid studying." And in an op-ed that came out a few months prior to Guess' piece, professor Shari Dinkins, a self-professed ole' fogie, conceded that "when used appropriately and in moderation, technology can help us teach. And it can help our "wired" students learn."

And while most of the reported successes of social networking mingling with curricula are from the post-secondary level, I know a number of high school teachers who have used instant messaging to help their students. In one of these cases, a math teacher signs onto his AOL account right after dinner and answers questions pertaining to the evening's homework until around 9 p.m., which allows more time the next day for teaching new material and addressing lingering concerns from the previous night's assignment.

Granted, Myspace—with its naked bum pics, renegade spammers, and risque ads—is probably not the best means for reaching students outside the classroom, but instead of firing Spanielman, his bosses should have done more to measure the effects of his online interaction with students, and, had they found them effective, established age-appropriate guidelines for how to use those tools.

Katherine Mangu-Ward on the University of Phoenix here. Excellent reason.tv video on universal preschool here. Daniel H. Pink on individualized education here. And of course, the other big Myspace case.

[Hat tip to Simon Owens.]