A tweet — a retweet, actually — cost a substitute teacher her job with the Albany City School District, highlighting the fact that personal social media use can affect educators.
The original April 20 tweet from the popular parody site YA BOY LITTLE BILL noted that a pictured infant looked like singer John Legend and was retweeted more than 2,000 times.
Zoe Naylor, a 24-year-old elementary school substitute teacher and middle school softball coach, was one of those who retweeted. She was fired, district officials said, because the tweet described the pictured child as “lil n***a.”
Regardless of whether the use of the word there was meant to be endearing, the district has zero tolerance for its use on social media — even if it doesn’t have a social media policy.
“It’s a derogatory, harmful term,” district spokesman Ron Lesko said. “We won’t tolerate it in any way.
“It is not a term of endearment to us. It’s become ingrained in pop culture to be acceptable. Not to us.”
The teacher, not a full-time employee, was let go after the retweet came to the district’s attention Monday. Her Twitter account has since gone offline.
Coincidentally, officials from districts around the region attended a conference last week in Rotterdam on social media.
Albany does not have an explicit social media policy for employees, but Lesko said other conduct rules cover this issue. That said, a policy will be put in place.
“The superintendent and the board were developing a social media policy before this happened,” he said. “The events of this week highlight the need. The expectations and accountability for our staff are clear.”
New York State United Teachers, which represents more than 600,000 current and retired employees in New York schools, colleges and health care facilities, believes teachers can be held responsible for off-hours social media postings, but should be presented guidelines.
“Districts should have clear policies on the use of social media that are developed with all the stakeholders, including teachers,” NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn said Wednesday. “Everyone should know what the rules are.”
He said teachers are reminded often that they are public figures whose words, even away from the classroom, can affect their professional standing. “We strongly counsel teachers to be very careful using social media,” he said.
The National Education Association warns that teachers are subject to discipline based on posts. From an NEA article on its website:
“First, let’s debunk the free speech myth: Many teachers believe they have the absolute First Amendment right to post anything they want on social networking sites, including party pix and diatribes about the boss. After all, they’re on their own time and using their own resources. Sadly, the courts say otherwise.”
In fact, the article notes, teachers have lost every case involving discipline or even dismissal over social media issues.
Despite NYSUT’s goal, coming up with a line for acceptable speech by off-duty teachers is difficult.
“It’s not something that I can say the line is concrete and a bright line for everyone,” said Schenectady schools Superintendent Larry Spring. “The gist of it is, it depends on the effect the speech has.”
That said, in referring to the tweet and word in question, “Everybody has their own take on it. … I can’t be OK with the use of that word in any way.”
Lesko said there was no judgment call to be made in this instance.
“Where’s the line? In this case, with the word or its derivatives, the line is very clear to us: There is no version … that would be acceptable behavior by our employees,” he said.
Education officials said regardless of whether a given district has social media policies, there is a clear expectation that teachers are held to a higher standard.
That is one of the reasons new teachers in the Shenendehowa school system are cautioned that social media posts are no longer private the minute they become posted, regardless of privacy settings.
“We recognize we have to act as role models at all hours,” Shen Superintendent Oliver Robinson said, “whether on or off school property.”