When Young Teachers Go Wild on the Web

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 28, 2008

It's almost like Googling someone: Log on to Facebook. Join the Washington, D.C., network. Search the Web site for your favorite school system. And then watch the public profiles of 20-something teachers unfurl like gift wrap on the screen, revealing a sense of humor that can be overtly sarcastic or unintentionally unprofessional -- or both.

One Montgomery County special education teacher displayed a poster that depicts talking sperm and invokes a slang term for oral sex. One woman who identified herself as a Prince William County kindergarten teacher posted a satiric shampoo commercial with a half-naked man having an orgasm in the shower. A D.C. public schools educator offered this tip on her page: "Teaching in DCPS -- Lesson #1: Don't smoke crack while pregnant."

Just to be clear, these are not teenagers, the typical Internet scofflaws and sources of ceaseless discussion about cyber-bullying, sexual predators and so on. These are adults, many in their 20s, who are behaving, for the most part, like young adults.

But the crudeness of some Facebook or MySpace teacher profiles, which are far, far away from sanitized Web sites ending in ".edu," prompts questions emblematic of our times: Do the risque pages matter if teacher performance is not hindered and if students, parents and school officials don't see them? At what point are these young teachers judged by the standards for public officials?

In states including Florida, Colorado, Tennessee and Massachusetts, teachers have been removed or suspended for MySpace postings, and some teachers unions have begun warning members about racy personal Web sites. But as Facebook, with 70 million members, and other social networking sites continue to grow, scrutiny will no doubt spread locally.

The annals of teachers-gone-wild-on-the-Web include once-anonymous people who've done something outlandish with a blog or online video. Many people, especially in the Richmond area, remember high school art teacher Stephen Murmer, fired last year for painting canvasses with his buttocks in images on YouTube.

Of course, many of the tens of thousands of Washington area teachers put social networking sites or personal Web pages to constructive uses. Others push the limits.

Erin Jane Webster, 22, a long-term substitute teacher in Prince William, keeps a page similar to other teachers'. Portions are professional, but some parts suggest the author is in the throes of sorority rush.

Under a "Work Info" heading, the page reads, "Employer: Prince William County Schools. Location: Parkside Middle School Language Arts Teacher." The section lists where she attended college (Radford '07) and high school (Osbourn Park High '03).

But the page features multiple "bumper stickers," including one that uses a crude acronym for attractive mothers and another that says: "you're a retard, but i love you."

Teensy problem: Webster teaches students with emotional and learning disabilities. In an interview, she acknowledged her use of "retard" could be misconstrued. The word, generally considered offensive, circulates among some young people as acceptable derogatory slang.

"My best friend, she always calls me that because I say ditzy things," Webster said. "My best friend and I would never go around calling people that. All of my [students] have emotional disorders or learning disabilities. . . . I love them."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company