Topic: Professions & Institutions

When Teachers Go Naked
(6/25/2005)

Austin High School officials fired art teacher Tamara Hoover when nude photos of her turned up on the web, placed there by her helpful life partner and fellow artist. A popular and respected instructor before a rival teacher discovered the revealing on-line pictures and showed them to her employers, Hoover is fighting dismissal while making the usual claims: violation of her free speech and oppressive enforcement of outmoded values. One of her more interesting arguments is reminiscent of the ploy used by George Costanza in a memorable "Seinfeld" episode, when he was called on the carpet at his job for having sex with a cleaning woman…on his desk. George argued that if he had received any guidance from the company indicating that it objected to such conduct, he wouldn't have done it. Hoover says that if the school didn't want its teachers displaying themselves on-line au natural, it had an obligation to say so before she bared all.

George, as all "Seinfeld" devotees know, was fired. Hoover isn't saying whether she approved the posting of the photos taken by her partner, but if she did, she displayed atrocious judgement. Especially with Mary Kay LeTourneau clones turning up on high school faculties with disturbing frequency, no responsible teacher should do anything to encourage hormonally-charged students to think of them as sex objects. No school should have to issue a policy to that effect, any more than a workplace needs to specifically ban desk-sex with cleaning personnel.

The fact that Hoover is an art teacher does complicate the analysis a bit. The hundreds of topless pictures of her lifting weighs, lying in bed and engaged in other household activities that were included in partner Celesta Danger's online documentary of their life together were not pornographic, but were intended to be art. Why, asks Hoover, should an art teacher be fired for "participating in the arts?"

Her question misses the point. As an individual, she is free to participate in the arts, and she is free to be a high school teacher. The problem arises when those activities begin encroaching on each other. What do we know about the web? It is accessible to anyone with a computer and an internet account. Teenagers have access to it and can find pretty much anything that is posted there. What kind of material on the web would undermine a high school teacher's effectiveness? Here are some examples:

  • Published essays on White Supremecy.
  • Four-letter word tirades on the idiocy of churchgoing.
  • Musings on the need for unrestrained sexual activity by the young.
  • Assertions that school is unimportant and that literacy is over-rated.
  • Nude photographs of herself.

All of these are Constitutionally protected speech, and all are guaranteed to call into question a teacher's seriousness, judgement, dignity, and fitness for molding impressionable minds. Would a teacher who mailed nude photos of herself to all her students deserve to be fired? Of course. Would a teacher who posted flyers with nude photos of herself around the school deserve to be fired? Yes. How about a teacher who refused to remove a large, framed 8 X 10 glossy of herself in the buff from her classroom desk? Naturally. And having such photos on-line is just one click away from any of these examples. Teachers are role models, mentors and authority figures, not sex objects, nude models or pin-ups. Once nude photos turn a teacher into one or all of the latter in her students' eyes, there is no going back.

This is true whether Hoover knew that the pictures were being posted or not: the impact on her students is exactly the same. Her personal culpability is certainly less if she did not approve the posting, but her relationship to her students is just as compromised. If Hoover regretted the incident, apologized, and questioned the judgement of her partner for posting the photos, her dismissal justify more sympathy; Hoover would be a victim of the bad judgement of another. But that is not her position.

Although it reluctantly concludes that she would have to be removed from her classes in any case, and that extensive web nudity makes teaching teenagers impossible regardless of the reason for the exposure, the Scoreboard would not be nearly as confident in its conclusion if Hoover agreed that the photos shouldn't have been circulated, and could be trusted to make certain that nothing similar occurred in the future. Would the school be justified in dismissing Hoover if, in a variation on one of the hypotheticals mentioned above, a vengeful lover was the one who mailed nude photos of her to the art students in her class? That would present a classic ethical conflict: what would be responsible for the school and right for the students would simultaneously be unfair to the teacher. The actual situation, fortunately, not so gray.

The fact that some homophobia may well have played a part in the school's decision is unfortunate, but the presence of an illegitimate motive doesn't render the legitimate ones invalid. To put it in the simplest possible terms, a responsible high school teacher has a duty to take reasonable care that her students do not see her in the nude. It is not too much to ask. Hoover apparently decided that the opportunity for public exhibitionism in the name of art was more important than her duty to maintain a healthy teacher-student relationship with her young charges. Art teacher or not, the school did the right thing in removing her.

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