Q: I’m a teacher in Massachusetts, and I take on tutoring jobs to supplement my income. I’m very careful to make sure that when I tutor, I only work with kids I don’t teach. Tutoring my own students would be a clear conflict of interest. However, things seem fuzzier when it comes to teachers who run side coaching businesses. I’m thinking about one of my colleagues in particular. He’s a middle school history teacher and the town’s high school football coach. He runs a football camp for middle school students, and our school helps him advertise it on our website and other social media. Is this ethical? I’ve had many private conversations with coworkers who resent this double standard. Frankly, we’re getting close to approaching the principal as a group to complain.

A: I’m going to talk about tutoring first, because I believe you’re correct to think about coaching in similar terms. According to the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission, public school teachers are subject to the conflict of interest law, G.L. c. 268A. This means that you can be paid to tutor kids outside your school as long as you use your own space and materials. However, there are plenty of tutoring scenarios that could be problematic, including the following:

  • You recommend that your student be tutored then get paid to do it. You can’t approach a student or the student’s parents seeking private work because you have a clear financial interest.
  • You tutor a current student. Your position of authority creates the conflict of interest.
  • You tutor after hours in your own public school classroom or using school materials.
  • You’re paid to provide services that the district has determined are necessary for a child, such as under an individualized education plan.
  • You tell one of your students that you’re available for private instruction over the summer.

What do these tutoring restrictions have to do with summer camp? Although the scenario you raise isn’t explicitly addressed by the Ethics Commission, there are strong parallels. Will kids feel they need to sign up for the teacher’s camp if they hope to make the high school football team in the future? If they’re current students, will they assume that enrolling in his camp will bolster their history grade? Or conversely, will they worry that not signing up will adversely affect their grade? He holds a position of authority over them and has a clear financial interest.

So let’s go back to tutoring for a moment. In Massachusetts (and elsewhere), a teacher can’t use his position to get unwarranted privileges for himself. In other words, he can’t use school resources such as classrooms or materials in connection with his private tutoring business. He can’t use his school’s website or brochures to advertise his services. A district may make an exception and list all providers that meet stated criteria, but they then need to include a disclaimer that they’re not endorsing any tutoring service in particular.

If you substitute “summer camp” for “tutoring” and apply these same standards, then I think the answer is clear. Your school should not be advertising this teacher’s business on its website or other social media. It should not be singling out this particular camp as superior. The teacher also should not pitch his camp to his own students or potential future students. He certainly can advertise elsewhere, finding clients the same way you’ve built your own tutoring business.

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