Richard Scudamore, the Chief Executive of the Premier League nearly lost his job last year. He sent emails to colleagues that his personal assistant found offensive. She disclosed them to the media because she felt “demeaned and humiliated” by them. They weren’t about her or referred to her, but they were "sexist and derogatory towards women".
Scudamore's defence was that they were private and that they were "jokes".
If you send a confidential personal email to a colleague during school time using a school computer, is it your message or the school’s? Is it private or public?
These days most people argue that such emails can’t be private because they have been created in school time with school equipment to produce them. But I think this is unreasonable.
Let’s say you were to use a piece of school paper and write a message using a school pencil to a colleague complaining about someone - another colleague, the head teacher, a parent or even a pupil. Perhaps you make some offensive remarks about their appearance or personality. You put the message in a colleague’s staffroom pigeon-hole for them to read but your colleague co-incidentally sends someone (like a teaching assistant or a school secretary) to retrieve something from the pigeon-hole and they accidentally find and read the message. Though the message wasn’t intended for them or about them, they feel ‘demeaned and humiliated’ and they report you to the headteacher or the chair of governors.
Would you think they would be justified in calling for your dismissal?
Most employers allow a certain amount of ‘private’ email use as long as you don’t infringe company protocols. It is perhaps a reflection of how differently we think of email as a medium that most of us probably don’t consider a personal email as ‘private’ as a personal handwritten note.
Teachers have been disciplined, sacked and even barred for mis-using school equipment – such as emailing offensive messages or posting racist and offensive blog posts. In these cases, all these messages and posts were intended to be viewed publicly including those they might cause offense to.
Now the values of our time seem to suggest that if you are a professional person then even your private messages, actions and attitudes are subject to scrutiny. If that is true, then I think this is not only unreasonable but takes us down a dangerous road.
Teachers – and other people whether in a professional position or not – have a right to privacy especially when their personal messages, actions and attitudes are not intended to be public.
But of course – the onus is on teachers to keep their private life just that… private.
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him for a talk. His book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.