An Apple or a Rotten Tomato for the Teacher?

We are both named Natalie.  We both work in high schools.  We both teach English.  We both blog.  But that is where the similarities end.

Last week, a story broke about this other Natalie, a 30-year-old teacher in a suburban Philadelphia school, who was suspended with pay for writing insulting posts about students, parents, and other teachers.

As a teacher, administrator, and blogger, this story piqued my interest, and for the last few days I’ve been wavering on my stance: Should a teacher be fired because of what she writes or posts on a blog, Facebook, or Twitter?

While Natalie Munroe, the teacher in Bucks County, PA, didn’t use her full name on her blog and didn’t name students in her blog posts, students in the high school still managed to find her blog* and deduce she was the author.  The students brought the blog to the attention of school administrators and Munroe was swiftly suspended. (On a lighter note, maybe her charges are brighter than she gave them credit for and have wildly lucrative careers as detectives ahead of them!)

In one post she detailed some comments she’d like to add to report cards:

  • “I called out sick a couple of days just to avoid your son.”
  • “I hear the trash company is hiring.”
  • “Nowhere near as good as her sibling. Are you sure they’re related?”

While her blog, NataliesHandBasket.blogspot.com, covered other topics, about one-third of the posts were about her job and the “disengaged, lazy whiners” she was attempting to teach.  Munroe spoke to the Associated Press last Tuesday and countered that she did write some positive things about her students but conceded to also writing negatively about her students “out of frustration”.  Munroe has lawyered up as the school indicated the very pregnant Munroe will likely lose her job.

Wading through several articles on Munroe’s case, I didn’t see any mention of www.ratemyteachers.com, a website that was developed several years ago for students to anonymously rate teachers on ease of grading, amount of homework, and other criteria, while providing space for comments.  When this website first came online in the early 2000s, it wasn’t quite as glossy and sanitized as it is today, and many students used it as a forum to openly malign and lambaste teachers without censure.  Teachers really had no recourse–their names and schools were posted, along with their rating average and a happy or sad face emoticon.  I didn’t find any articles about teachers suing the website or students being reprimanded for their comments.

I’m really struggling with this whole issue because while I can empathize with Munroe’s frustrations as a teacher, I’m first and foremost an advocate for students.  Teenagers can be a tough crowd, but through the years I’ve found most are just looking for someone to listen to them or validate their feelings.

On a personal level, I avoid talking about my students and job on my blog or Twitter.  I don’t have Facebook for a few reasons, my profession being the top one.  If I have a bad day at work, I might vent to my husband or a close friend who works as a teacher in another district, but I generally try to let things go.  Like I say to my students when trying to give them perspective: Will this problem still bother me in a week? A month? A year? Five years?

Yes, some teenagers can be entitled and rude but so were some of the adults I worked with in Corporate America. None of my colleagues at my old job ever made me laugh as much as my students, and none of my achievements at my old job made me feel as good as I do when graduates come back to visit with tales of success in college and beyond.

When my students clamor to tell me that the characters on 90210 were talking about The Importance of Being Earnest last week, or when I see their knowing smiles and hear their laughs at Elizabeth Eulberg’s references to The Canterbury Tales and Great Expectations while we’re reading her new book Prom and Prejudice in class, or when students begged me to take them to see Sean “Puffy” Combs play Walter Lee Younger in the Broadway reprisal of A Raisin in the Sun a few years back, I know they are listening and taking something away from my classes.

But back to the salient point: Should Natalie Munroe (or any teacher) be able to write about her job, students, and work-related frustrations on her blog?

Constitutionally, yes, I think she has the right to say what she wants so long as she doesn’t name specific students or the school but should be cognizant that she runs the risk of being ‘outed’.

Personally, morally, and from a common sense angle, I think people in general–professionals in any field specifically–should take care not to use the internet or any social media as a platform to say things he or she wouldn’t be comfortable saying in a crowded auditorium filled with family, friends, and all of the people he or she is writing or complaining about.

*While it was widely reported by the media outlets that Munroe’s blog was taken down, it seems that in the last few days she purchased a new domain, www.nataliemunroe.com, and is back online blogging.

22 Comments

  • At 2011.02.20 11:03, bermudaonion (Kathy) said:

    It’s a tough issue and I’m sure much of what that other Natalie said was true, but some things are better kept out of the public forum.

    • At 2011.02.20 13:05, Wendy said:

      I find this fascinating. I wonder if there was no internet and a teacher was at a party and spoke negatively about her job/students without naming names, and then someone from the party told the Principal…would she lose her job? Probably not. I tend to side with the accused on this one. She did not overtly create a blog where she could be identified, she talked mostly about other stuff, she never named the school or students or parents…how can she be fired for this? There is something called “freedom of speech” in this country – unfortunately the Internet seems to be challenging that.

      Aside from all of that – I personally steer clear of being negative about my job and I don’t ever speak of my patients in a public forum (other than to say I go see patients). I think the only negative thing I’ve ever said was on Facebook where I complained that I had tons of paperwork and it made me sometimes hate being in the medical field. Pretty tame.

      It is becoming more and more obvious that people need to curb what they write about on blogs and social networking sites.
      Wendy´s last [type] ..Sunday Salon – February 20- 2011

      • At 2011.02.20 13:42, Natalie said:

        like you, i play it safe when discussing work or students. when i do tweet or write about my students, it’s only to convey something funny or sweet they’ve done or said. (ie. when i lamented last week about losing the power cord for my kindle, one student brought in her dad’s kindle charger for me to borrow. i tweeted that because i thought it was sweet.)

        i think one of the differences between venting at a party and venting online is that online what you say is out there forever and anyone can see it. at a party, only those in attendance or earshot will hear and remember what you said.

        ultimately, it comes down to common sense. people need to remember that internet is a public forum and anyone could read anything you write. i’d rather err on the side of caution than give out too much info about myself, my job, or my life.

        • At 2011.02.24 15:43, veronica said:

          Wendy, while I’m not sure I think she should be fired over this, I think the argument of free speech is a little heavy handed. Freedom of speech only means that you have the right to say whatever you want to say, not that you have freedom from facing any consequences that may arise from what you say. She exercised her first amendment rights by posting on her blog, and by continuing to blog now. And now, while I’m not sure I agree with their action, the school is exercising its own rights by holding her accountable to its standards.

          • At 2011.02.24 22:20, Wendy said:

            Veronica: I understand the line you are drawing…but here is the rub: had she NAMED her students, NAMED the school she worked for, NAMED a parent – I could see the school having a case. But, what she wrote was general complaints, not about particular students. The students actually had to go on a fact finding mission to even find her blog. It seems to me that an employer does not really have the right to fire someone for something unrelated to their position. My question: Did the school have a policy which states teachers are not allowed to blog about anything related to their job? I bet the answer is no. And if I was this teacher, I’d hire a great lawyer and call them on it. An employer has to actually have standards written and accessible to their employees in order to hold them accountable. Thank goodness, otherwise any one of us could be fired on a whim just because we chose to share an opinion on our blog.
            Wendy´s last [type] ..The Last Brother – Book Review

        • At 2011.02.20 14:12, Wendy said:

          I agree about erring on the side of caution; and yes, what is written is forever out there (unless it’s deleted *smiles*). But I think firing this teacher is a little over the top – why not just ask her to remove the offending material from her blog? I have a sneaking suspicion we have not heard the end of this – I have a feeling the school may find themselves at the wrong end of a lawsuit.
          Wendy´s last [type] ..Sunday Salon – February 20- 2011

          • At 2011.02.20 14:30, Lisa said:

            I’m glad you brought up the site ratemyteacher.com. It’s an interesting comparison. In both cases, the objects of critique don’t really have any way to speak back. The main difference, for me, is the age of the author. We can and should expect more from an adult than from a teen.
            Social media creates a wide and often indelible footprint of our lives and we need to be savvy about what we put out there. As a writer, I am not going to complain about an agent or publishers, for example. It’s unprofessional and career damaging. Everyone needs to vent but, like you, I think we vent to the people close to us, not to the band waves.
            Lisa´s last [type] ..How I write about my children

            • At 2011.02.20 14:58, Gwen said:

              I would hate to have been one of her students and read about myself on her blog. How are they supposed to respect themselves or even try when their teacher is so two-faced and has written them off in public?

              I get that teachers need to vent, we all need to vent about our jobs. The thing is, she choose to do it publicly, even worse she was venting about her charges, whom are much more sensitive. She could have written a journal, talked to a spouse or friend, anything that wasn’t public and permanent.

              If Natalie had a different, more corporate job and blogged about her co-workers or the projects that she was working on like that and it was found, she would have been fired. No being suspended with pay.
              Gwen´s last [type] ..A New Birth of Freedom- The Visitor by Robert G Pielke Review

              • At 2011.02.20 15:28, Natalie said:

                Gwen,

                Do you think it matters that she didn’t name the students and just generalized about them? Most of her complaints tended toward, “They are whiners.” or “They are so entitled.” as opposed to “Little Bobby Jones is such a monster. Was he raised by wolves?” I’m just wondering if, by not naming names, she should be less culpable.

                Mind you, if I were Natalie Munroe, I don’t think I’d want to go back to work at that school because after all this I suspect she’ll be a persona non grata even if she wins in court.

                Just curious about what you think.

                • At 2011.02.20 17:29, Gwen said:

                  She was obviously descriptive enough that they figured it out. Yes, by not using names, she more or less covered her legal rear, but that doesn’t take away the harm that she has done to those that could figure it out. It is a mighty slippery slope.

                  Now that I have been thinking about it for a few hours, I wonder if she could have used her frustrations for good instead of just getting it out and possibly harming the respect of all teachers. I hate to use a cliche, but I will. Is she part of the problem as opposed to being part of the solution?

                  For example, when I have a problem with a co-worker I vent to my spouse and we talk over ways to deal with the issues that I have with her. If I just bitch, bitch, bitch all of the time, I am not growing and not looking out for the mission that the co-worker and I have together. Is Natalie’s talking about her students really helping her be a better teacher or just blowing off steam so that she can show up again tomorrow, not learning any new ways on how to turn the whiners into winners?

                  Let me make something really clear, I love teachers, I am in awe of anyone that teaches. I don’t have the patience to teach my dog how to sit, never mind a whole class of rowdy kids.

                  Here’s the thing with all of this, I keep imagining myself, at that age. Insecure, totally lacking self confidence, somewhat unhappy home-life, but a pretty good student when I was challenged. I read my teacher’s blog, that doesn’t name names, but I start thinking that she is calling me a whiner or agreeing that I have been raised by wolves, etc. (even if she wasn’t referring to me specifically) What would my reaction have been?

                  I would have shut down even further. Why should I bother trying, when the teacher says that I have no chance and hates teaching me?

                  Maybe I am personalizing it too much, that is my nature.
                  Gwen´s last [type] ..A New Birth of Freedom- The Visitor by Robert G Pielke Review

              • At 2011.02.20 17:27, Dishy said:

                Very thought provoking post, Nat! Especially interesting for me, being from the area. Friends have been discussing the case via FB and seem to be supportive of the teacher’s right to vent. She was blogging “anonymously” after all and did not rail against specific students, peers or administrators. I agree that it wasn’t a prudent decision, and certainly not one I’d ever have made. But I do think she has a constitutional right to do what she did. No one should lose their job for making general comments about high school students being lazy whiners. If so, half the teachers in the country would likely be unemployed. Teenagers are a tough bunch to deal with for the most part. I think it’s easy to judge this woman for what’s she’s done, but how many would be willing to step into her shoes and fill that role day after day? You do an amazing job as a high school teacher, but you also work at an affluent private school. There is something to be said for that versus, say an inner city school – or even a suburban district such as the one where the other Natalie was employed. Bottom line: do I think this teacher should be fired? No. Do I think she should go back? No. It would be uncomfortable and awkward for everyone involved. But I fear she may be hard pressed to find another paying job as a teacher after this whole debacle. Fear of reprisal keeps most people from saying many things they’d like to in person, but unfortunately the internet acts as a sort of shield in the eyes of some. They feel protected, in much the same way that some drivers feel protected while in their car and behave in an otherwise unconscionable manner. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.
                Dishy´s last [type] ..Chocolate Chip Coffee Cake

                • At 2011.02.20 18:17, Elli Davis said:

                  But she has a choice to change her job. Why she works as a teacher when she clearly dislikes her students so much?

                  • At 2011.02.20 21:24, Jenners said:

                    Hmmm…this is tough one. I feel she should be able to say what she wants on her blog — provided she doesn’t name real names. But, like you said, it is probably not the smartest thing to do when you’re in that type of position. It is best to keep that kind of stuff offline where no one can find it.
                    Jenners´s last [type] ..Writer’s Workshop- A “Memorable” Vacation

                    • At 2011.02.21 00:37, softdrink said:

                      Exactly what Jenners said. Having been a teacher, I think she should have known better. Teachers come under all sorts of scrutiny…and students love to find things out about their teachers.
                      softdrink´s last [type] ..Friday Factoids

                      • At 2011.02.21 11:23, Meg said:

                        So true, softdrink — I remember, in high school, the lengths to which fellow students would go to try and “hurt” a teacher they felt had erroneously punished them or graded them harshly, etc. It was actually appalling. At my school, many of the kids were wealthy and, yes, entitled . . . if they could get their hands on some potential blackmail on a teacher, they were all over it.

                        But without the malicious angle, kids are just fascinated by their teachers . . . who are they when we’re not looking? Especially the ones we do like. A few of my high school teachers are still my favorite people.

                        On the issue at hand: basically, it’s never a good idea to blog about your job or coworkers or . . . well, anyone in your life that you might not want to later have access to your postings. There are countless stories of people who blogged about their professions and were later fired. Being a teacher, too, it’s just bad form to publicly say negative/nasty things about students . . . even without any names being used. We all get frustrated at work, yes, but writing about it publicly just makes you look unprofessional and, honestly, immature. Ack.
                        Meg´s last [type] ..Book review- ‘The Bright Side Of Disaster’ by Katherine Center

                      • At 2011.02.21 12:22, Literary Feline said:

                        Thank you for this thought provoking post, Nat. I personally do not talk about my work on my blog or on a social network site other than in perhaps very general terms–and rarely about specific people. If I do talk about a coworker, it’s usually book related, in a positive light, and I have their permission. I don’t dare talk about clients/customers–it’d be a breach of ethics, not to mention the law. Besides which I think it’s poor judgment to do so. It’s one thing to vent to a loved one or coworker but another to put such personal complaints like that on a public forum. Ultimately though, I think that there is a fine line between what is acceptable to complain or vent about and what is not in such a setting. And the dilemma is knowing where that line falls.

                        • At 2011.02.21 15:55, Lisa said:

                          Constitutionally, yes, she has the right to say whatever she wants. But to my way of thinking, if you feel this way about your students and teaching in general, then you should not be teaching. And the school should have the right to fire anyone they feel is no longer working in the best interest of the student. If I posted about how terrible my customers are and what an awful job I have and my boss found out, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to find my job in jeopardy. As a parent of a student, I would pull my child from any class this woman teaches—motivating kids at this age is a tough enough job for someone who cares. I cannot afford to have my child’s future jeopardized by someone who clearly doesn’t care.
                          Lisa´s last [type] ..Sunday Salon – February 20

                          • At 2011.02.21 18:40, Stefanie said:

                            Wow, thanks for this perspective. As a fellow teacher, I have been grappling with the same issues since this story broke. It’s a tough spot. I want to be able to partake in the fun of Facebook. I want to be able to blog freely, about whatever suits my fancy. I don’t want to worry about who’s going to sue me about my personal life all on account of my professional one. I agree with a lot of your sentiments about teenagers, and I like to think that I have a really good relationship with most of my students. But if something or someone irks me, in or out of school, I want to have the freedom to vent in whatever manner I choose. The kids should be afforded the same rights … If they would like to complain about me online (truthfully), I don’t have a problem with that. I certainly won’t take them to court over it. It’s an interesting issue, and something I think we’ll be seeing more of as time goes on and our world becomes more digitalized (and it will).

                            • At 2011.02.22 16:23, Kathleen said:

                              I agree with your stance on the whole issue. Just because you CAN post about stuff given our right to free speech, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. I never post about my workplace other than to mention on my blog that I’m busy at work or something like that. It sounds like she was pretty frustrated and needed a better way to vent!
                              Kathleen´s last [type] ..A Look Ahead

                              • At 2011.02.23 14:15, Kari said:

                                Interesting story, definitely one of those grey areas. I’d like to see her original blog and see the context of her comments. However, I think there were other ways to go with this if she wanted to share her stories with her husband and 7 friends. Send emails, use chat, or easiest of all, SET YOUR BLOG TO PRIVATE. She does have the right to make her comments, but when having a public position like hers, she does have a higher level of accountability to the community she serves. She should’ve been even more careful as a teacher than just any Joe Schmo complaining about his 9 to 5.

                                As I read this story, I could see it go TOTALLY the other way. I could see a blog in which a teacher tells funny or annoying stories about students be a “hit” and widely read. Kind of like the S@*# My Dad Says. I’m sure there are tons of people like her out there doing the same thing. Unfortunate for her, she’s the one getting picked on. Doesn’t matter if it’s “fair” or not…hope others learn a lesson from this.
                                Kari´s last [type] ..What is the internet

                                • At 2011.02.23 17:43, livelaughloveliquor said:

                                  I don’t think I’d have a problem with what she did. In addition to my 2 little ones, I raised 2 teenagers as well. i know how rotten they can be. I need to vent sometimes too. Now I can just imagine having a classroom full of them. Her full name was not on the blog, not did she single out any one student.
                                  livelaughloveliquor´s last [type] ..A Hangover- an Honor and a Picture……

                                  • At 2011.03.03 11:48, Jennifer said:

                                    I can’t believe that this is the first time I have heard about this. I’m totally going to bring this to my vocation of teaching class and see if we can chat about it. Personally, I think that what she did is wrong – but I’m not sure she should be fired for it. Granted, I think that maybe she is in the wrong profession, but that is something that she needs to deal with. I am on my way to becoming a teacher and while I know that there will be a lot of frustration there, I would never vent about students on my blog or on the internet in any form. Sure, I might vent about some of my professional troubles in my private writing, but never anywhere that my students might come across it. I think that in the classroom, students and the teacher need to develop a sense of trust and if the teacher break that, it is incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to move forward.
                                    Jennifer´s last [type] ..Rejection Hurts