ST. LOUIS — The old axiom that educators should practice what they preach is being tested anew across the nation.
As support for character education grows and expectations for student conduct rise, teachers also are being held accountable for their behavior.
In some cases, however, teachers view the new demands as clashing with their constitutional rights.
* In Collinsville, Ill., the teachers' union is protesting a new policy on obscene language that calls on teachers to serve as "positive role models" and "ambassadors for the school district." The union chafes at the "vague" policy especially because it's not clear if it applies after school hours.
* In Santa Ana, Calif., teachers balk at having to wear suits and dresses after a tough dress code is put in place for students.
* Last month, a gay teacher in Salt Lake City sued the school district after it removed her from coaching volleyball and told her not to talk about her "lifestyle."
* In Florida, an unmarried teacher is reassigned after becoming pregnant.
Moral education is streaking back to the top of many education wish lists. In a recent survey of parents for U.S. News and World Report, "teaching children values and discipline" ranked as the No. 1 priority for education.
Now teachers are being told not only to teach morals, but to model good behavior.
One of the basic principles of character education is that teachers should serve as good examples for students. But what does this heightened accountability mean for teachers' rights to freedom of speech and conduct?
Few teachers dispute school districts' right to police teacher behavior or language in school, but many view their responsibilities as confined to what takes place on school grounds.
Requiring teachers to live up to a high moral standard 24-hours a day is unrealistic - and requires almost angelic behavior from people already taxed by shrinking budgets and ballooning class sizes, teachers argue. It also sets a standard, they say, that many parents may not meet.
"It's one thing to convey certain values," says Michael Resnick, associate executive director at the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. "It's another thing to hold a teacher to an exemplary lifestyle around those values. That's where it starts getting a little trickier."
In Collinsville, the teachers' union wants to clarify what administrators mean by the term "role model."
"Within the school setting, they have certain expectations, and hopefully our teachers are up to those standards," says Sandy Kolo, president of the Collinsville Education Association. "But we're not sure if they're talking about after-school hours."
The proposal was purposely vague, says Superintendent Thomas Fegley, who originally presented the plan to the school board.
The policy was prompted by parental complaints about teachers using inappropriate language in the classroom, but Mr. Fegley says the district has an interest in certain behavior off school grounds too.
For example, he says, a teacher confronted a student and his mother at the mall, using inappropriate language in public. In another situation this fall, the Collinsville School Board fired a junior-high math teacher after the police found a group of 16- and 17-year-olds drinking at his apartment.
In some cases, the courts have supported schools that discipline teachers for conduct outside of school. The Indiana Court of Appeals, for instance, sustained the firing of a teacher who drank beer in front of students at a restaurant and then drove them home from a field trip.
"Even though the teacher may be on his or her own time, misbehavior that can reflect on the ability to act as a role model is within the purview of the school district and doesn't violate free-speech and association rights," says Gwendolyn Gregory, deputy general counsel at the National School Boards Association.
The focus on teachers' behavior is nothing new. In early America, when the twin objectives of schooling were clearly understood as developing both character and intellect, teachers were hired more for their moral reputations than education credentials, says Thomas Lickona, author of "Educating for Character" and an expert on character education. "It's really a return to something that was present at the beginning of American public education."
As public schools embrace character education again, it makes sense that teachers are being scrutinized more closely as moral exemplars, he says.
In providing character-education training, Lickona finds that high school teachers are more uncomfortable about their position as role models than elementary teachers. "The typical elementary school teacher is more comfortable being held to ethical standards," he says.
It may seem that younger kids need more help developing their moral compasses, but Lickona warns "adolescents are very astute in noticing any kind of double standard."
The value of upright teachers
David Wheeler, principal of Wellwood Middle School in upstate New York, can vouch for that. When he began detaining or suspending students caught swearing several years ago, students started coming to his office after hearing a teacher use off-color language. "I got sent to the office for that, but how come the teacher can say it?" they would ask.
"They can't," Mr. Wheeler responds. "You can't say one thing and do another," he tells his teachers. "Kids need good role models. In a lot of cases, they're not getting that at home." But even some advocates of character education warn school districts about going too far in dictating their teachers' conduct. Just about every teacher contract includes some clause about "upholding the norms and values of the community," says James Leming, a professor of education at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. "But if you start having a separate clause for every dimension of teacher behavior, it becomes pretty nit-picky."