Discipline in education and social networking: a tempest in a teapot

Pondering the impact of social networking on discipline in education is a total waste of time.

This item was brought to my attention:

OJEN Newsflash: Great Debate: Student Discipline in the Age of Social Networking!
A student is disciplined for writing unkind comments on ratemyteacher.com

  • Is this a violation of students’ freedom of expression under the Charter?
  • Who protects the teacher or maintains school order?
  • How far does the school’s disciplinary responsibility extend?
  • When is students’ expression harmful or damaging to others in the school community?

With increasing frequency Canadian students are being disciplined for remarks made on social networking websites.  Join us on April 15th at this year’s Great Debate where debaters will argue the perspectives of the student, teacher and school board.  Expert legal commentators will lead a post debate discussion, followed by a wine and cheese reception hosted by The Law Society of Upper Canada.  Classroom resources and lesson plans will also be distributed to attendees.
The Great Debate is an OJEN Law Week program designed to enliven discussion about the justice system, particularly for high school teachers and students.  The Great Debate is filmed and a DVD version with accompanying lesson plans is made available free of charge to teachers across the province for use in their classrooms.
To attend this free event, email info@ojen.ca.

First off, the web site’s real URL is http://www.ratemyteachers.com/.  A little background research wouldn’t hurt, folks.

So we have some kid who used a perfectly legitimate web site to express an “unkind comment” about his teacher.  And the poor kid gets “disciplined” for expressing an opinion and having the guts to let himself be identified as the author.

Is this a violation of the student’s rights?  Absolutely! He can go to the corner store with his friends and diss his teacher all he wants.  He might be unkind; he might even be wrong.  But he has the right to express himself – even if he is “unkind.”  Students have been hanging out at the corner store talking badly about their teachers for as long as there have been teachers.  But it seems that only recently have teachers become so delicate and emotionally sensitive that they need protection for students’ comments.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me – unless I’m a teacher.

The fact that this case took place on the web instead of at the corner store is irrelevant.  The difference is only one of quantity, not quality.  I’m no more a murderer if I kill 10 people than if I kill only one.  Similarly, the fact that many more people are likely to see the comments on RateMyTeacher than would hear them at a corner store is not the point.  If it were, then we’d need to define the size of audience that sets a limit, beyond which disciplinary action is acceptable.  But how arbitrary would that be!  If 10 people hear/read you, that’s fine; but if 11 people hear/read you, then you’re in big trouble!

To discipline a student for speaking his mind – even unkindly – is to teach the student that his opinion doesn’t matter.  That’s not education; that’s an intellectual lobotomy.

The school should have given him a good talking to and sent him on his way.  (I assume that a good talking to is not what they meant by “discipline.”)  They may have explained to him how his sort of behaviour reflects poorly on him.  They might have explained how he might express himself differently.  They may have done a hundred things better than just disciplining the kid.

Who protects the teacher or maintains school order?  No one! Oh, what an Orwellian ring “school order” has!  The school’s ability to exert any power over students stops at the ends of the school’s property.  If the student used school computers to post his comments, then the school is to blame for not blocking that site.  (Of course, if the school does block the site, then one must then ask What are they afraid of?)  If the student was off school property, then the school has absolutely no power over him whatsoever.

And what kind of spineless and feeble teachers are we talking about, that they need “protection” from harsh language?  Obviously not the kind who should actually be teaching!  There’s a related website, http://ratemyprofessors.com/, in which I and many of my colleagues have been trashed by students.  We just laugh – indeed, some of us enjoy reading the terrible reviews we all occasionally get.  Indeed, I tell my students about the site, and show them the particularly bad reviews I’ve gotten.  It’s great fun, and it tells my students that I’m not afraid of what they think.

Do teachers really have such poor self-esteem, compared to professors, that they need all this gentleness and protection from those rude brats?  If they do, then why are we allowing such people of weak character teach our children?

How far does the school’s disciplinary responsibility extend?  To the edge of the school property, not one inch further! Schools are surrogate parents under only very specific circumstances.  Only parents have the responsibility to “discipline” their children otherwise.  This is part of the social contract in which we all participate.  A school that attempts to undermine this contract is placing itself above the society that gives rise to it, when it is, in fact, in service to it.  The school is therefore in violation of its own most basic principle: to show children how to function well and happily in society.

When is students’ expression harmful or damaging to others in the school community?  Never! It doesn’t matter how callous or vulgar a student’s statements may be, they all mean something more than just a crass utterance.  Since we’re talking about a site called RateMyTeacher, we can assume the student is 17 years old or younger.  Given the utter lack of education students get in how to express themselves these days, it’s no wonder they must resort to “unkind comments” to express themselves.  It’s absurd to think that the same teachers who have not taught students how to express themselves get upset when the students show a lack of that very ability.  It’s certainly got to be a slap in the face, to see your own students behave in a way that so comprehensively contradicts what you’re supposed to have taught them….

Sometimes, students use inappropriate language and behaviour to get attention.  Well, disciplining such a student is giving them a lot of attention.  Students: 1; teachers: 0.

Sometimes, they do it because they’re angry – but they don’t know why.  In my experience, anger comes from confusion or frustration.  In either case, the anger is a symptom.  Treating the symptom (with discipline) only hides the symptom but does not address the underlying cause.  Students: 2; teachers: 0.

In any case, the point is this: dealing with students’ behaviours is rarely well-handled by discipline, whether or not the behaviours are mediated by online tools.  Online tools are only that – they cause no qualitative changes whatsoever.  So this whole mess about the impact of discipline with respect to social networking is a contemptible waste of time and money.

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2 thoughts on “Discipline in education and social networking: a tempest in a teapot

  1. Maybe the site should be called “www.ratemyteachers-positive reviews only.com”. What happened to freedom of speech? Are teachers exempt?

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