Digital Manners: The Teacher Who Tweets Too Much

Navigating the intersection of etiquette and technology.
May 22 2012 2:00 PM

Teacher Tweeting TMI (Transcript)

Should a school system enforce limits on what and with whom teachers can tweet?

Emily Yoffe: Should a teacher be tweeting about her night on the town?

Farhad Manjoo: I’m Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo.

Emily: I’m Emily Yoffe, Slate’s Dear Prudence advice columnist. And this is Manners for the Digital Age.

Farhad: Today’s question is from a listener who thinks a relative is way out of line, and writes, “Dear Farhad and Emily, my sister-in-law recently requested to follow me on Twitter, but after looking at her Twitter feed, I denied her request.

“The majority of her tweets consist of what I feel is inappropriate banter with her much younger brother and his friends, who are all in high school, swearing (sometimes very explicitly) and calling him inappropriate names. She also tweets a lot about how drunk she got and how hung-over she was the next day. The worst part? She’s a middle school science teacher and many of her students follow her tweets.

“She’s asking me why I won’t let her follow me. I want to tell her the truth about how inappropriate I feel her tweets are and that I don’t want to be associated with that. But I don’t want to get into any fight about it, and I don’t think she understands that these tweets will never go away and may, in the future, affect her job prospects. Should I tell her to cut it out?” Signed, Sensor Yourself

So, Emily, what if this woman was your daughter’s middle school teacher and you saw those tweets. What would you do?

Emily: I would go to the principal and say, “You’ve got a serious problem here you’ve got to deal with, because not only is this teacher talking about being drunk – as you can see, she’s having inappropriate conversations with students. This should not be happening and you’ve got to address this.”

Farhad: Yeah.

Emily: Absolutely. But that’s a different question: What do you do if it’s your sister-in-law?

Farhad: It seems like this person doesn’t understand Twitter.

Emily: The letter writer or the teacher?

Farhad: The sister-in-law. It seems like both of them don’t understand Twitter. I’ll get to the letter writer in a second. But the sister-in-law seems to not know that everything she writes is public. Perhaps she knows and she just doesn’t care, but I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt and suggest that maybe she doesn’t know that everyone can see these things? It seems like a really dumb thing to do.

I think that the letter writer should let her know all this stuff is public, you’re a teacher, probably the parents of your students can see this stuff and you’re going to get in trouble very soon. It’s a little weird that the letter writer doesn’t want the sister-in-law to follow her, because if the sister-in-law is following her on Twitter, the letter writer is not going to see the sister-in-law’s tweets. The letter writer only sees the sister-in-law’s tweets if she follows the sister-in-law. I hope that makes sense.

It’s not going to hurt the letter writer in any way to let this other woman follow her.

Emily: I think you’re making an important point about the technology of Twitter and what it means to have a follower, etc. But we do get questions about “Gee, I have a really obnoxious friend. I don’t want to friend this friend on Facebook with the potential of getting these friends’ stupid comments.”

I think you’re right that the letter writer is over-thinking that, allowing the sister-in-law to follow her, it looks like, approval. On the other hand, I understand not wanting to be associated with someone who, on the same medium, is doing really insane things.

Farhad: I think the difference between Twitter and Facebook here is I don’t think that when someone follows you on Twitter people think that you’re approving of them. Most people on Twitter allow anyone to follow them. They don’t have this request set up. Anyone can follow most people and it doesn’t suggest that you approve of them in any way. I don’t think anyone is going to take this as approval of the sister-in-law.

But I don’t want to excuse the sister-in-law’s behavior. I think it’s completely stupid. You told us what you would do if you were the parent of one of these students, and I think a lot of parents would do that. It’s not going to take very long for this to become a public thing among the parents, and then she’s going to get in trouble.

Emily: Exactly. This technology is allowing this crazy lunatic of a teacher to broadcast her bad judgment. In the olden days, she would just be stupid more or less privately, but she’s used this technology to say, “Hey, kids and parents, look how much I really should not be a teacher.”

I think our letter writer should have, not a confrontation but a conversation, with her sister-in-law using the Twitter request as an opening and say, “I got your request and that prompted me to look at your Twitter feed. You have opened yourself up for losing not only your job, but being barred from your profession. The content of what you’re putting out there can be seen by the administration, by any parent, and you need to take this down immediately because there is serious trouble ahead.”

Farhad: I really do think that some people don’t understand that Twitter is public. If you just have a few followers you might think “No one is ever going to look me up, no one is ever going to pay attention to this stuff.” But it’s easy enough to find anyone on Twitter. I think no one on Twitter should think that they’re in a cocoon, that they’re obscure enough that no one is going to look them up.

Emily: I think, in this case, the technology has done a real service of identifying someone who perhaps needs a different line of work. The technology is putting a big red circle around this person saying, “Got a judgment problem? Drinking problem? Boundary problem?”

Farhad: I think you raise a good point about whether it’s better that we know about these people through their dumb social networking and can make sure they’re not teaching our kids.

Emily: My bottom line is the issue is not “Do you let this idiot follow your Twitter account?” It’s you tell this idiot “You need some help before the authorities get a hold of your Twitter account.”

Farhad: Yes. I agree.

Emily: Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age. Our address is digitalmanners@slate.com

Farhad: You can also join our Facebook page where we carry on the conversation throughout the week. Go to www.Facebook.com/digitalmanners.

Emily: And we’ll talk to you next time on Manners for the Digital Age.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column.