With recent controversy over Florida high school teacher Olivia Sprauer’s firing after photos of her life as a “glamour” model were leaked, the issue of teacher’s conduct is worth revisiting. There does, in fact, remain significant gray areas for determining rules of professional conduct for teachers in today’s age of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, and schools must tow a difficult line in determining to what extent images of teachers working — or even socializing — in their time outside of school may contribute to “racy” behavior warranting job termination.
Sprauer’s part-time work as a swimsuit model seems racy enough that her firing is largely merited. While she contends that she’s “done nothing wrong” working as a swimsuit model, her case is difficult to legally defend as schools maintain the right to dismiss teachers based on moral grounds. While the Marin County School District has refused to comment, cause for teacher dismissal in state law can include immoral conduct, incompetence, neglect of duty, noncompliance with school laws, conviction of a crime, insubordination, or fraud.
Laws for teacher conduct can be difficult to authoritatively delineate. Teaching.monster.com lists out the top ten ways for a teacher to get fired. Not surprisingly, topping the list is the headline-raising issue of romantic involvement with students, which almost always violates state statutes and even laws of private institutions. Other issues they recommend avoiding include lying on job applications, hunting for other jobs at work, gossiping, taking personal phone calls, using the web excessively, conflict with coworkers, grading discrepancy, mixing personal and professional life, and, of course, advertising “unbecoming” behavior. The McGraw Hill company also provides a convenient “quiz” for teacher conduct, which helps point out the fact that teachers cannot be legally fired for age, diagnosis of AIDS, or pregnancy, but can be fired for theft or use of profanity in front of students.
Regardless of the help of such “quizzes” and “guidelines,” there remains a large degree of gray area under which schools are able to terminate teaching contracts. In fact, Lehigh University College of Education professor Perry Zirkel has insisted in a Washington Post op-ed that even the much-contested practice of teacher tenure as comfortable job security is a bit of a “myth.” Her research finds that tenured teachers are often terminated more than nontenured teachers are denied renewal.
Sprauer’s case will raise more questions over whether or not teachers are safe to pursue less extreme versions of part-time work in the modeling or beauty industry.
"I felt like it would have been nice for my students to finish out the year with me," Sprauer said, seemingly surprised to have suddenly been escorted from her school due to her modeling career. But, the reality remains that the “security” of a teaching job is almost always up to the discretion of the school, and schools have a lot of leeway to terminate teachers somewhat comfortably under vague statutory language.