Pennsylvania teacher Natalie Munroe may lose her job for engaging in the occasionally mean-spirited venting that teachers--and really, all workers--have indulged in since the dawn of the 9-to-5 job. The only difference is, Munroe did her ranting online, enabling her students--and their parents--to read every word she wrote.
It's not surprising that the families in Munroe's district are now calling for the English teacher's head, in view of her all-too public characterizations of her young charges as "rat-like," disrespectful, lazy and arrogant.
Still, the incident raises larger questions about how far teachers should go to ensure their anonymity online, as well as whether a teacher should ever criticize his or her students in a public forum, no matter how veiled the references.
In an interview with the Bucks County Courier Times, Munroe's lawyer argued that his client strived to keep her blog anonymous, since she never mentioned her school or students by name. But she blogged under her first name and last initial, and had a photo of herself on the site. Munroe's own comments suggest she never thought anyone would ever discover her blog, or care about what she was writing there.
"There are thousands and thousands of blogs out there. I was just writing about the hum-drum of my life," Munroe told the Courier Times. "Even if somebody stumbled upon it, who cares? I am nobody."
But the uproar shows that a lot of people did care what she thought--and the Munroe incident points out the risks for anyone venting about job frustrations quasi-anonymously.
Ryan, a former teacher in Texas who co-writes a blog about the frustrations of the teaching profession called HoboTeacher, told The Lookout he decided to make his blog fictional precisely to avoid a Munroe-type situation. (Ryan, who requested that The Lookout refrain from using his real name to preserve the blog's anonymity, says he still works in education, but is no longer a teacher.)
"Some people hit golf balls to release some steam: we just started telling stories to one another," he says about the blog's genesis. Even though all the stories are inspired by actual challenges that he and his colleagues face on the job, Ryan said he takes pains to ensure that the published anecdotes are scrubbed of any revealing details and fictionalized. "We've created characters that say the things we want to say, but we would never say for obvious reasons," he observed.
"We're kind of the opinion that if it was real, it's kind of not fair to say those things because you do have to keep people's feelings in mind and whatnot. It didn't seem fair to write something about someone and put it out there for everyone to see," he said.
Ryan added that he and other educators hate sites such as Ratemyteacher.com, an anonymous forum that lets students rail against--and occasionally, praise--teachers, so he didn't want to create something similar.
"I think it's frustrating, because people can rant about you and there doesn't seem to be any repercussion for that," he said. "I know life's not fair but that kind of hurts a little."
There's also a vast array of Facebook groups permitting to students to lambaste individual teachers for being unattractive, boring or inattentive. The more general Facebook group, "I don't suck at the subject, my teacher just sucks at teaching it" has nearly 300,000 members.
Anonymous teachers posting at a forum called "The Vent" on Proteachers.net share Ryan's sense that the digital revolution has turned teachers into ready targets, with all-too-few outlets permitting them to air their frustrations. (And yes, teachers are adults and students are children, but that can be hard to keep in mind when you stumble on a Facebook group that says you are fat and stupid.)
Below, two anonymous teachers wondered on "The Vent" if they should rein in their own commenting online, given Munroe's situation. One member asked: "But how is this different than what a lot of people say about teachers? Are we not allowed to fire back?" (UPDATE: The image of the comments has been removed at the request of Proteacher.net.)
The Vent discussion board is full of teachers complaining about difficult parents, bosses and kids, and asking advice about how to deal with them. In one thread, a second-grade teacher admits she broke down crying in front of her students when they complained school was boring and they didn't want to be there. Another teacher wrote an imaginary sarcasm-laced letter to the parents of a "perfect" student. "I hate to ruin your world but your kid is not perfect," the letter reads in part. "I am tired of your calls to the classroom during school and your hostile messages after school."
But "The Vent" is only one part of the ProTeacher site. Elsewhere on the site, teachers trade professional tips on how to make classes more fun and the most effective ways to discipline. It's the digital equivalent of the faculty lounge. And most contributors to the site would likely be horrified if their students traced any of their critical posts back to them, just as they would be if a student overheard how freely gossip can fly in the teachers' lounge.
Munroe, however, told the Courier Times that she's not sorry the world now knows what she really thinks.
"But the fact remains that every year, more and more, students are coming in less willing to work, to think, to cooperate. These are the students I was complaining about in my blog," she said. "The same way millions of Americans go home at the end of the day and complain about select coworkers or clients or other jerks they had to deal with, I came home and complained on my blog about those I had to deal with."
California math teacher Darren Miller who blogs at Right on the Left Coast: Views from a Conservative Teacher told the Lookout there's a pretty easy way to have an online presence and be a teacher: Don't write stuff that will get you in trouble.
"I've mentioned to students that I have a blog; they can look at it if they want to," he writes in an e-mail. "Each year one or two students comment on it periodically, and that's ok. While I don't put my last name on my blog, or identify my school by name, I also don't write about serious school disciplinary events or anything else that could reasonably be considered indiscreet."
And for his part, Ryan has some sage advice to teachers--or anyone, really--who want to blog. "Count to 10 before you hit submit on anything."
(Natalie Munroe: AP and Screenshot from Proteacher.net)
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Munroe taught in Ohio.