Mexican Elementary School Teacher Twerks Her Way Out of a Job

Logo of Mexican elementary school that fired a teacher for provocative dance video

Logo of Instituto Cumbre del Noroeste

Every so often, one or another of my Facebook friends will post an image or e-card with the cheerful and uplifting admonition to “dance like nobody’s watching.” Some have attributed the sweet sentiment to author William Purkey or even (amusingly) to famously acerbic wit Mark Twain, but the line was actually penned thirty years ago by songwriters Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh in the song “Come from the Heart“:

You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money
Love like you’ll never get hurt
You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watchin’
It’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work.

When Clark and Leigh penned those lines in 1987, the mobile phone revolution was just getting started. Thirty years later, of course, the smartphone revolution has made it increasingly difficult to do anything, let alone dance, without others watchin’.

Yet another teacher discovered this to her dismay recently. Over Easter break a couple of weeks ago, a 24-year-old elementary school teacher named Carla Clarissa traveled to Cabo San Lucas in Baja California for a little rest and relaxation. While there, her friends persuaded her to enter a dance competition hosted by the well-known beach bar, Mango Deck. She did well; so well, in fact that she took home the top prize of $260:

The remainder of the story is a well-trod path. A video recording of her winning performance (one of many, no doubt) found its way onto the Internet and of course, onto the screens of students and parents at the Instituto Cumbre del Norestre, the private school in Ciudad Obregón at which she taught. Outraged parents complained to the school’s administration and when Clarissa returned from vacation, she was forced to resign.

According to the Daily Mail, Clarissa offered a spirited defense in an interview with the Mexican newspaper Reforma. She raises a number of valid points.

“I knew there were mobile phones but I never imagined this would go viral and anyway, I’m not doing anything bad. It was a dance competition, something like this doesn’t define me as a person, it was my free time and we’re in the 21st century. It’s not something to be afraid of, I’m not naked, I’m not having sex or taking drugs or disrespecting anyone.”

Predictably, an online petition has been started on Change.org, praising Clarissa for her work and demanding that the school rehire her. Nearly 1,000 people have signed the petition so far.

Reflections and Discussion Points

She’s Right. It Is the 21st Century: Clarissa’s statement is correct in two different ways.

First, school boards and school districts should not apply the standards of 1916 to 2016. Like it or not, these darn kids just don’t dance the same as their elders once did. The complaints about modern dance styles are completely predictable, and have been occurring in the United States since the introduction of the waltz in the 1880s (I kid you not — check out Censoring Sex: A Historical Journey Through American Media, by John E. Semonche [p. 143]). There is no denying that Clarissa’s dance was highly sexual and was one relatively small piece of fabric away from being legally obscene, but the performance didn’t cross that particular line. As she pointed out, she didn’t do anything illegal, and her dance was hardly more explicit than the twerking videos her students are undoubtedly watching on YouTube, featuring stars like Myley Cyrus, Rihanna, Selena Gomez, Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, Iggy Azalea, and Nicky Minaj, to name just the most well-known examples. Not surprisingly, you can even get fit by “twerking out.”

The context of twerking matters, of course. A good argument can be made that it would not have been appropriate for Clarissa to dance like this during a class, or in her front yard in Ciudad Obregón, or perhaps even in a local club. But surely she should be able to let down her hair at a spring break beach bash more than 300 miles from the school where she teaches.

Second, school boards and school districts need to change how they evaluate the off-duty behavior of their teachers. Since it is the 21st century, the reality is that camera phones are everywhere. Inevitably, the non-work behavior of educators is going to wind up being broadcast (at least the most outrageous examples). As I said in American Privacy, the definition of “privacy” is “the ability to control the capture and spread of personal information.” By definition, twerking on a beachside platform in front of dozens of smartphone-equipped spectators is not private behavior; as this incident demonstrates, there is simply no way that Clarissa could control the recording and distribution of her performance. And in fact, the Mango Deck expressly warned all participants that they might wind up on the Internet. As one owner put it: “We didn’t force anyone to participate in this way and if this young woman wanted to get up and dance like this, it’s her responsibility.”

Clearly, Clarissa cannot make any argument that her privacy was invaded. But she is entitled to protest the fact that the school invaded her personal space by pressuring her to resign over non-work-related conduct. I understand the school’s position: as a private institution, it undoubtedly feels the need to be sensitive to the concerns of some of its customers (the parents) and it may well feel that it has certain standards of decorum and even morality that it wants its faculty to uphold. However, given the fact that we are a more openly sexual society and that thanks to smartphones, what happens in Cabo San Lucas will never, ever stay in Cabo San Lucas, school boards are either going to have to stop being so judgmental or stop hiring millennials.

If a school district does insist on trying to impose a moral code on faculty during their personal time, it will discover that it is sliding quickly down a slippery slope of semantics. Teachers have a right to know what type of behavior will get them in trouble and possibly cost them their jobs, so school boards and districts will find themselves debating the relative morality of different behaviors. Exactly which type of dancing, for instance, is unacceptable: Twerking? The Twist? Headbanging? Texas Two-Step (with or without guns)? Jitterbug? Slow dancing? Morris dancing?

In the absence of clear guidelines for professional behavior, school districts will have almost unlimited ability to retroactively judge the off-campus behavior of its staff and faculty. Given the myriad ways in which technology is shrinking private space, we need to strengthen and expand employer respect for personal space. When districts establish guidelines for personal behavior, the only relevant considerations are whether the behavior was legal and whether the behavior substantially interferes with the educator’s ability to do his or her job.

If the administrators at the Instituto Cumbre del Norestre had applied those criteria, Clarissa would still be teaching. She did nothing illegal by participating in the dance contest and with an appropriate administrative response (for instance, a brief statement declaring that “what teachers do on their own time is their business”), this likely would have blown over fairly quickly. Too many good young teachers are being burnt at the stake simply because people know more now about what they do on vacation. It is a gross overreaction and a waste of talent.

The Gatekeepers Are Dead; We Are All Gatekeepers Now: One more media and dance-related point is worth making. September 2016 is the 60th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s first of three appearances on the Ed Sullivan show. The second, in October 1956, featured a hip-swiveling performance of “Hound Dog” that so upset viewers in Nashville and St. Louis that they burned Presley in effigy (which is really hard to imagine, given what’s on YouTube these days).

Three months later, when Presley appeared one last time on the Sullivan show to sing “Don’t Be Cruel,” CBS used a single stationary camera that shot Presley from the belly-button up:

As one might expect, Presley looks bemused by the whole thing. CBS could congratulate itself that it was protecting the morals of America and its children because it controlled the single camera used to broadcast the erotically-charged singer. The self-congratulation was self-delusional, of course; even then, there were too many competing media outlets happy to attract besotted fans by broadcasting Presley from head to toe.

But thanks to smartphones, every single one of us is now on a par with CBS. We have the ability at any given moment to decide what we will record and broadcast to the world. That immense power imposes a responsibility on educators and parents to instill in the emerging generations of digital citizens a better sense of cyberethics. We should be challenging children to think about when it is appropriate and not appropriate to record someone and upload their image to social media.

Maybe that wouldn’t have mattered during the Mango Deck’s twerking fest; most people, as Clarissa did, would expect that people would record their performance. But it’s one thing to record a performance like that for personal viewing and another thing altogether to upload it to social media. That’s the cyberethical/digital citizenship issue that should be discussed and debated among children (and adults). Even when you dance like everybody’s watching, that doesn’t mean you agree to share it with the whole world.

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