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Editorial: Lesson plan for teachers (and everybody else): Don't be a jerk

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It's easy, and dangerous, to forget that what you say on social media is out there for the whole world to see.

If you think President Donald Trump is the ruination of our nation, imagine how you would feel if your child’s teacher was on Facebook every night accusing you and other Joe Biden supporters of being condescending swamp dwellers who are trying to destroy America.

Or, if you think Mr. Trump is the best thing that ever happened to our nation, imagine how you would feel if your child’s teacher had the class write essays explaining the problems with his immigration policies.

In that context, it’s easy to understand why Berkeley County School Superintendent Eddie Ingram sent a memo to teachers recently cautioning them that such behaviors can “threaten the public trust that is vitally important to the District’s operation of our schools” and reminding them of the district’s policies regarding social media use, media communications and classroom instructions.

Some of his points are specific to teachers: Teachers, particularly history, social studies and sometimes language arts teachers, have always had a challenge in trying to incorporate real-time examples in their lessons without politicizing them. It’s even trickier the closer we get to an election, and it gets tougher every year, as our politics become more divisive. So it’s absolutely appropriate to remind teachers that they need to keep their personal beliefs out of the classroom.

And some of his points are wrongheaded: The public needs to know about potential problems with how our schools are operating. And in this moment, when we are asking so much of teachers, it’s particularly important for those teachers to be part of the public conversation — especially in the one district that state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman has had to call down for refusing to require masks and for requiring teachers to teach both in-person and online courses. So while teachers (or any other employees) should indeed give their employers a chance to address their concerns before running to the public with them, they shouldn’t have to get their bosses’ permission to complain in public.

But his points about social media are completely on-point, applicable to all professionals (all people, actually), and worth paying attention to.

Although school district employees are free to discuss their political viewpoints on social media, Mr. Ingram wrote, they should “do so in a manner that is professional and respectful of others, including those with different political viewpoints.”

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Specifically, they should refrain from “using obscene, demeaning. or derogatory language which is unsuitable in the school setting; engaging in harassment, intimidation, discrimination, or bullying; or behaving in any inappropriate manner that could adversely affect the employee’s ability to perform his or her work or disrupt the educational environment.”

It’s sad that anyone would have to be reminded to not be a jerk — which is really all that requires. But as we’ve been seeing all year — as cities and school districts and hospitals fired employees whose social media posts crossed the line — it’s a reminder that too many people in every profession do need.

Navigating social media is still relatively new, and many social media sites have an insidious way of bringing out the worst in people: We get caught up in the nastiness of a conversation and from the anonymity of our homes type in things we would never dream of saying in person.

But what we say on Facebook and Twitter and other social media sites is far different from what we say to our family over dinner or what we tell our colleagues in the teachers’ lounge. It’s out there for all the world to see. And once we say it, the whole world judges us — and the organizations we work for — by our words.

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