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The case of the blogging schoolteacherBY: Dan Rottenberg 08.09.2011
Is Bucks County’s blogging schoolteacher providing valuable insight into an educator’s mind? Or is she violating the confidence of her youthful charges during their vulnerable formative years?
When professionals blame their clientsDAN ROTTENBERG
“My students are out of control,” blogged Natalie Munroe, an 11th grade English teacher at Central Bucks High School East, in October 2009. “They are rude, disengaged, lazy whiners.”
Over the ensuing months, in a personal blog titled, “Where we are going & why are we in this handbasket?”, Munroe elaborated: Some of her students, she wrote, are “frightfully dim” and “utterly loathsome.” If she had her druthers, Munroe added, her report cards would include comments like, “Dresses like a streetwalker” or “I hate your kid” or “Just as bad as his sibling. Don’t you know how to raise kids?”
Is this a dedicated teacher creatively utilizing the Internet and the First Amendment to let off healthy steam while simultaneously providing valuable insight into an educator’s mind? Or is it an adult authority figure violating the confidence of her youthful charges during their vulnerable formative years?
At the risk of undermining my status as a champion of unfettered free speech, count me in the latter camp.
Munroe posted her comments under the byline “Natalie M.”; she didn’t identify her school, her district, her students or her colleagues; and her audience appears to have been minuscule. But she did post her photo. And on the Internet— where even a dachshund sitting at a keyboard can reach the whole world— it was only a matter of time before Munroe and her school became globally infamous.
Who’s the aggrieved party?
Munroe hasn’t taught since February (when school authorities became aware of her blog), thanks to a combination of suspension, maternity leave and summer break. Rather than wage a costly legal fight over employee rights and free speech, Munror’s school district says she’ll be permitted to return to her job next month. But students assigned to her classes will be able to opt out. So far, 60 students have already exercised that option, with nearly a month still to go before classes resume.
As she did in her blog, Munroe continues to paint herself as the aggrieved party. “I have apprehension about returning,” she told an Inquirer reporter, “for me, for everybody. The climate could have been defused.”
Ah, but the climate at school is precisely the point. The assurance of confidentiality for clients— which, lest we forget, is what schoolchildren and their parents are— is critical to any professional relationship.
Priests in confession
It’s inconceivable to imagine a lawyer, say, blogging about the unreasonable demands of his clients (“What a bunch of crooks and losers!”).
Or a doctor about his patients (“I told that tub of lard to lay off the cigars and pastrami, but did he listen?”).
Or an accountant (“Didn’t anyone teach this idiot long division?”)
Or a therapist (“This fucked-up nutcase is driving me up a wall!”).
Or a priest (“She’s confessing about giving her boyfriend blow jobs in the back seat of his car— and I’m supposed to remain celibate?”).
But whatever rules apply to doctors, lawyers and priests go double for teachers. Perhaps the most important element of a good education is a secure and welcoming environment where kids can learn from their mistakes without fear of global exposure.
Until the synapses of their brains grow together— in some cases, not until age 25— kids do many silly things, such as strutting half-naked downtown, or terrorizing grownups in “flash mobs,” or phoning a boyfriend to strafe a SEPTA bus with gunfire after having been dissed by a fellow passenger, or (worst of all) paying $65 for “The Lady Gaga Back to School Bundle.” Kids shouldn’t be permanently condemned for behaving like kids.
An underground cult hero
Such thoughts may sound strange coming from the likes of me. Over a six-year period in the 1980s, when I was editor of the Welcomat (now Philadelphia Weekly), I readily published a series of 15 angry essays submitted by a frustrated Overbrook High School teacher named Ronald James.
In those pieces, James provided uncompromising analyses of life on the front lines of Philadelphia public education. He criticized school administrators for giving only lip service to the need to discipline unruly students. He lambasted his superiors for burdening teachers with red tape instead of freeing them to focus on teaching. He described a world whose incentive system was such that good teachers ultimately aspired to become administrators, so they wouldn’t have to teach any more.
In the process, James became an underground cult hero among Philadelphia schoolteachers, who in those pre-Internet days photocopied each of his essays and eagerly circulated them from school to school. James was especially effective because his dedication and experience seemed beyond reproach (he taught in the system for 23 years). James’s principal at Overbrook acknowledged his right to express himself, although she also asked him to stop writing his columns.
Things inevitably came to a head in March 1990, when some 300 Overbrook students walked out of classes to protest what they felt was James’s racist attack on his own students. The principal, claiming she couldn’t guarantee his safety, sent James home on sick leave, then arranged for his transfer to another school. He taught at two other schools for 12 years before retiring in 2001. (Today—surprise!— he writes a blog called ”Harmless Aggression.")
James’s courage throughout those years (he was a white teacher in a 99% black high school) seems beyond dispute. But was Ron James a dedicated teacher venting his legitimate frustrations with a broken system? Or was he taking out his anger on his students and their parents, having ceased to think of them as his clients?
My answers to those questions fluctuated constantly. As James’s editor, I welcomed his insights and was always happy to publish them. But had I been his friend, I would have suggested that his columns didn’t necessarily reflect well on him. (Note to writers: Your editor isn’t necessarily your friend.) And had one of my kids been in his class when James was writing those columns, I would have requested another teacher.
“Many of the students I teach behave as if they have no responsibility at all for their education,” James complained in the column that triggered the Overbrook walkout, sounding very much like Natalie Munroe. Well, yes. And many of the writers I edit behave as if they have no responsibility to form declarative sentences or to proofread their copy before sending it to me. And they’re grownups.
But dealing with their shortcomings— in private— is my job. Ditto for teachers.♦
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