Avoid Self-Inflicted Professional Wounds
Updated: Sep 3
As a seasoned campus and central office administrator, I have witnessed first-hand a handful of incidents involving educators that not only resulted in hours upon hours of lost time and energy meeting with parents in conflict-resolution, but situations that could adversely affect their professional careers. To begin with, there is nothing worse in my professional experience than spending two to three hours or more in meetings with a parent discussing an incident that should have never occurred. In most school settings, these types of happenings are avoidable with effective classroom and student management, school professional development training, and adequate classroom preparation.
But other incidents of serious inappropriate actions are not. If an educator’s actions result in a criminal indictment due to their actions while at or officially representing the school, then that educator is in dire need of professional counseling services and legal representation. Consequently, if prosecuted and found guilty of those offenses, those educators should never be permitted to work with children in the future in any capacity.
However, let’s focus the discussion on the more common school and classroom situations that can be controlled to avoid damage to one’s professional reputation and in the worst cases, potential legal liability.
What is a self-inflicted professional wound?
A self-inflicted professional wound occurs when a faculty member commits an action not in compliance with the campus or district personnel standard code of conduct – and quite frankly, should have known better. These situations could be as common as inappropriate personal attire worn to school, losing emotional control with a parent, overreaching one’s authority or engaging in excessive force with a student. The more structure in the classroom and the school, the higher the probability an incident will not occur. Again, if the educator exercises common sense, emotional control, adequate lesson preparation and knowledge and foresight of a school/district edicts on employee conduct, these occurrences are proportionately less likely to happen.
A principal should address and provide clarity to many of the items listed below relating to teacher conduct at the first professional development session prior to the beginning of the school year. However, at a bare minimum, these items should be thoroughly discussed with newly hired teachers as part of their initial induction program meeting.
Tips and advice to decrease the probability of self-inflicted professional wounds
Children should not be left unsupervised in the classroom; however, teachers must use the restroom, and they become ill as do all human beings. Thus, educators must know the school’s procedures to legally protect themselves so students remain monitored when they exit the classroom for personal hygiene needs or any other reason.
A teacher should NOT overstep their professional authority as stated in the school or district Code of Employee Conduct. Thus, the teacher must know the rules of what they can and can’t do. For example, “Can a teacher search a student’s backpack?” Or, “Can a teacher physically restrain a student or under what circumstances can they do so?” Finally, “Can a teacher legally confiscate a child’s cell phone?”
If an unusual incident has occurred in the classroom or playground, summon a campus administrator for options and advice. Or, if a child is hurt on the playground, contact the proper medical personnel – notably the school nurse for their professional advice on the matter.
If a teacher is working at a closed campus during school work hours, they should be aware of rules on leaving school premises including the planning period and the lunch ‘hour.’
In general, what a person does in their personal life outside of school is their personal business as long as the activity is legal. However, many school districts have specific rules for employee conduct away from school premises – driving while intoxicated or any behavior that may be classified as moral turpitude. Educators should be aware of these ethical cannons.
Social media can be a major problem for educators at all capacities in a school district. It is strongly recommended that before posting pictures or writing comments on any website, that the educator pause, and consider if they would be comfortable if that posting appeared on the front page of their local newspaper. Finally, it cannot be overstated that an educator should never respond or contact students on social media until after their current or former students have graduated high school.
If a teacher is summoned to the office and a criminal accusation is levied, it is highly recommended the educator NOT discuss the matter with school authorities or police officers. The educator should immediately telephone their teachers’ union and/or an attorney – an educator is entitled to legal due process.
If an educator – administrator or teacher – is directed by local law enforcement either at the onset or during an official investigation, they are legally expected to follow those oral instructions. If the educator elects not to comply or disregard police directives, they could be held accountable up to and including termination.
A campus administrator’s physical (property-line) authority begins at the edge of the street (i.e., curb) in front of the school – “curb to curb authority” with the adjacent streets and/or property boundary lines surrounding the campus. It is recommended that the administrator refrain becoming embroiled in any and all neighborhood related issues – those minor and major disturbances are for local law enforcement to handle. However, the school’s administration does control who can and cannot ride a school bus based on a child’s conduct in transit.
If local media arrive unexpectedly to a campus, it is recommended that the administrator contact district personnel for guidance in speaking or not speaking directly to the news media. It is difficult to walk an aired interview or unring a bell once it has been rung. Educators should always exercise thoughtful discretion when interacting on a taped or live conversation with news media outlets.
If the administrator observes any unmanned maintenance activities during and after school hours – for instance, a ladder resting against the wall or open chemicals (e.g., paint cans), the administrator should lower the ladder (in this example) or close and shelter any opened chemical containers. Maintenance personnel should be located and advised of potential student safety issues, immediately. These occurrences are deemed “attractive nuisances” and represent safety concerns to students.
A campus administrator handles civil issues between personnel, parents and children’s issues – during normal school operations. If a matter is brought to the office on excessive force, drugs, alcohol or inappropriate student-educator issues, it is a legal, criminal matter or at a minimum, a determination of such. It is highly recommended that the administrator NOT speak to the teacher, but contact the police. This situation is no longer in the administrator’s realm of civil authority.
If the school administration is not clear of their authority, they should telephone the district office and discuss the matter with a school district attorney for counsel. Immediately after that conversation, the administrator should send an email to that same attorney with the subject entitled “Legal Opinion Sought.” This email provides documentation on the existence of the phone conversation, and verifies the specific details and proffered legal guidance. But, equally important, the email is now covered by attorney-client privilege and thus, the correspondence is not subject to Public Information (PI) or Freedom of Information (FIA) requests.
A campus administrator has a legal responsibility in addressing any and all of the above situations if they occur with their direct reports. However, if school administrators review and clarify the basic “do’s and don’ts” during the first week of professional development each August, classroom teachers are more mentally prepared to readily address them appropriately in the event of an atypical situation. A teacher needs to be mentally prepared for both the common and the uncommon (but probable) situations when working with a classroom of small, moving bodies each school day. In short, a classroom teacher’s first task at the beginning of the school year is to convey the classroom rules to their students; however, analogously, the teacher should also read and be aware of the school’s and school district’s code of conduct and any other governing ethical behavior for employees that may govern their conduct in specific situations. There may be serious consequences of not knowing the extent of this set of rules.