Editorial Note: I have revised my thinking on the Natalie Munroe case somewhat after coming across some new information. I will let the original post stand but encourage readers to look at the follow up.
I’m not quite sure what to make of this one:
“Be careful what you post on the Internet,” Natalie Munroe told her students year after year.
Maybe if she had listened to her own advice, she wouldn’t be where she is right now: Suspended and at risk of losing her teaching job at Central Bucks East High School.
Munroe, who has taught English at CB East since 2006 and has a salary of $54,500 this year, wrote a blog called “Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?” for more than a year. In between blog posts about muffins, Food Network stars and her favorite movies, she posted long, profanity-peppered rants about Central Bucks administrators, her co-workers and her students.
“My students are out of control. They are rude, disengaged, lazy whiners,” she wrote in one post dated Oct. 27, 2009. “They curse, discuss drugs, talk back, argue for grades, complain about everything, fancy themselves entitled to whatever they desire and are just generally annoying.”
Munroe wrote multiple posts in the year that followed in which she talked about her own boredom and used profanity to describe her students.
Ok, so let me get this straight: over a year ago, a high school English teacher ranted about students in general (using no names or identifying information) on an anonymous personal blog, using such slanderous language as “rude, disengaged, and lazy” as well as unspecified swear words, and the internet has taken to its fainting couch, called for its smelling salts, and demanded that Munroe be taken to the village stocks and flogged for her misbehavior.
Oh yes, and evidently she has been suspended with pay, and her job is potentially in danger. If you go wade through the comments at some of those links (tread carefully) and hell, even some of the actual reporting, you’ll note that a number of depressing assumptions and stereotypes about educators:
That good teachers are long-suffering and eternally compassionate and never ever ever complain about their students and that teachers who complain are bad teachers who hate their jobs. I am here to tell you that I am married to an award-winning high school teacher. We regularly hang out with other high school teachers, and they bitch about their jobs all of the time, including their students. And most of them still qualify as excellent teachers with strong testing records and a legion of adoring students. Because here is the thing: teaching is not missionary work, even though state legislatures seem to want to make it so. Teaching is a job, and sometimes people have bad days at work. Teaching is also a job that involves a lot of interaction with people, and as a rule, people sort of suck. Teaching is also a job that requires the job-holder to negotiate an often needlessly complex and even hostile bureaucracy. And teaching, much like parenting, is a job that carries with it enormous unrealistic expectations that no human being could possibly fulfill. So sometimes they need a safe space to tell it like it is.
That individuals who do not find the teenage propensity toward laziness and narcissism occasionally frustrating do not belong in teaching. If that were true, our list of eligible teachers would be desperately slim indeed. Some commenters on this story have said something to the effect of: “I hate teenagers, but I didn’t sign up to work with them everyday. She shouldn’t be a teacher, because she clearly hates children.” I would submit that there is a vast difference between having flashes of sublimated rage toward the teenager who tells you to “fuck off” under his breath after you’ve asked him for his homework and “hating children.” It means that occasionally, some teenagers are disrespectful asshats, and like most emotionally healthy individuals, and most teachers have a appropriate emotional responses that may or may not get vented once said asshat has been sent to the Vice Principal’s office and said teacher has entered the sanctum of the Teacher’s Lounge. Hell, if we applied this “you must find all minors uniformly adorably under all circumstances in order to interact with minors on a daily basis” rule fairly, we as a species would have to stop reproducing.
That teachers should never, ever communicate a general displeasure with students or her job in any form that could be detected by her students. Many have seen this incident as an object lesson in using discretion on the internet, and while I think the point is somewhat valid, I also think that insofar as Munroe’s blog was anonymous and never once named any students, administrators, or even the school, district, or state in which she was teaching, and given the sheer vastness of the internet, Munroe was reasonable to expect that no student would ever come across what she had written unless they were looking. And I find compelling her claim that some student or parent may, in fact, have been cyberstalking her in order to find incriminating information.
That teachers whom students dislike are invariably bad teachers. There was a teacher at my high school who I hated but who I now recognize was an excellent teacher. She was ballsy enough to teach evolution in a biology department at a Christian school in a state that barely teaches it in the public schools, and she expected the utmost from her students. Considering that this was a college prep curriculum, I think she understood that she was not getting paid to coddle anyone, that she had a right–in her Honors class–to expect students to rise to the standard she had set based on two decades of prior experience. She was also frequently accused of “hating kids,” despite the fact that she was raising a developmentally disabled child to whom she showed nothing but compassion. She just did not have a warm, motherly, nurturing personality, and students who were used to making A’s made B’s in her class, and as a result, she was the target of numerous campaigns by students and parents to get her fired. Luckily, her administration backed her up every time. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with children can tell you that they resist and often resent being challenged. And parents all too often over-identify with students who think they are being treated unfairly and are often unwilling to see their child as part of the problem.
Now, it would appear that not everyone is calling for Munroe to be drawn and quartered, and sympathy for Munroe has been rising ever since she began blogging again, revealing herself to be articulate and lucid when it comes to the issues facing public education today. And one of those issues she has correctly identified is the fact that when we talk about improving education, we’re almost always talking about teachers: teacher’s unions, teacher tenure, teacher qualifications, merit pay, how to deal with failing teachers, etc. The conversation is always about holding teachers accountable.
And yet, with all of that specialized training, people second-guess and blame teachers for so many of the problems that exist in education today. Do we go to our doctors and lawyers and tell them how to do their jobs, and second-guess everything they do? Do we stand alongside chefs at restaurants and tell them we think the boulliabaisse looks like it needs some more saffron? No. We trust them to do what they’ve been trained to do. Of course it’s ok to ask questions along the way so we can know why something is happening or understand the process–but at the end of the day, some trust needs to come into play, too. Let’s let teachers do their jobs.
I doubt anyone could possibly disagree that accountability must be a part of teaching, but accountability in recent years has increasingly meant sucking all of the creativity, art, and dynamism out of teaching. And it has increasingly been used as a way for politicians to look like they’re doing something without admitting that we as a society seem either unwilling or unable to hold students, parents, and communities accountable as well. Any teacher will tell you that she can pour all the love and creativity she possesses into her teaching, but it doesn’t amount to squat if the student isn’t showing up regularly enough to receive it, and it doesn’t translate into better numbers if the student refuses to hand in an assignment despite being given every opportunity to do so.
The trend among administrations has been to avoid telling parents and students difficult truths. One of the items that made Munroe’s detractors so irate was a list of fantasy responses she made up as replacements for the “canned comments” her administration insists teachers use on report cards:
At report card time, we are obliged to add a comment to supplement and/or expand on the letter grades. We are strongly encouraged to use the “canned comments” option, which have a limited number of comments from which teachers may choose to explain students. However, much like options on those magazine quizzes where you sit there scratching your head and mumbling, “Well, I’m a little bit A, but somewhat D, too… um, I wonder what I should pick,” some of the options don’t work for some of the kids. Some of the students don’t fit within the canned comments. And none of them allow teachers to truly reflect any sort of behavior or academic deficiency in any truly negative way. Examples of canned comments are: “cooperative in class,” “achieving at ability level,” “needs to complete homework,” “needs to increase study time,” “doesn’t take advantage of second chance learning.” So I took the opportunity for myself and the possible amusement of my friends–since I was content and expected for everything to stay low-key with only my 7 pals reading my ramblings–to list those real behaviors that exist but that you just aren’t allowed to write. (Parents don’t want to hear the truth; administrators don’t want us to share the truth.) But regardless, they weren’t comments meant to fit all students, and nor were they even for every student I wrote “cooperative in class” about–I was just being pithy when I made that joke.
In a very real way, Munroe’s “offensive” post on this matter vividly illuminates the utter disingenuousness with which teachers are asked to evaluate their students. Spared difficult news about themselves, students (and their parents) can proceed blithely from high school to college without ever learning hard lessons about either the subject matter they are supposed to be learning or about the realities of entering the world as an adult. And then they wind up in my classroom, incredulous that they are receiving mediocre marks for mediocre work.