Clothing, behavior, hobbies, beliefs, lifestyle, and many other human aspects are subject to scrutiny and penalties if that person is a teacher. The freedom of speech and freedom of religion are just a couple of rights that are greatly compromised for public school educators. In a time of sue-happy parents, accessible media outlets, and a student population starving for attention, teachers should be well-versed on their rights both in and out of school. In order to better equip public educators in Austin for a litigation-free career, the following list will identify some rights of teachers:
1. Freedom of religion is limited. Schools must remain religiously neutral and teachers must comply. They are allowed to wear very modest jewelry (i.e. a small religious pendant) but may not keep a religious library in their room, post religious literature on the wall, distribute religious material, sponsor religious on-campus events, or in any other capacity breach the separation of religion and state as a government employee.
2. Beware of social media. Do not post anything incriminating. Even if it is believed that a social networking site is private, pictures and words can get around. Never post inappropriate photos or make negative statements about students, administrators, parents, or the school. Also never participate in emails, texts, and smart phone apps with students that may be controversial.
3. Academic freedom is questionable at best. Understand the curriculum objectives and teach them. Understand the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) and teach them. Understand school policy and heed it. Having freedom to choose supplementary materials or capture a “teachable moment” is reserved for professional educators that can make choices that will not cause controversy or be offensive. If an educator wants to venture into unchartered territory, always seek approval from an administrator before throwing one’s self into the fire.
4. Personal property is subject to investigation. In the case of a student investigation, phones, computers, notes, files, and photos could all be used as evidence. Be very careful about where notes are stored and the content of the writing. Also, ensure that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) guidelines are always followed to avoid committing a federal offense.
Teachers should recognize that being a representative of the school trumps personal rights. The state finds that teachers must be positive role models while not promoting or inhibiting religion. Although the laws and policies in education are constantly changing, these few tips may help keep teachers in the classroom and out of the big house.
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