Teacher Complains about Students on the Internet. America Loses Its Collective Shit.

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.

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42 thoughts on “Teacher Complains about Students on the Internet. America Loses Its Collective Shit.

      1. I appreciate it, but these links are not working. All I have been able to find is quotations from the blog onother sites that frame it as “the very worst.”

      2. Yeah, I agree that the image was inappropriate, and as with anyone who gets in trouble over shit they’ve said, I think free speech has consequences. That said, I still think the media reaction has been a tad out of proportion and has brought to the surface a number of common but distressing assumptions about what it means to be a good teacher. I’ve seen reactions to it that basically use one teacher’s internet indiscretions as an opportunity to make sweeping claims about the profession. I will probably post a follow up to address the new information, but I need to think about it all some more.

      3. No, of course, I understand. We may end up still disagreeing on this, but such is life.

        But I have read all the posts about students on her blog through the magic of Google Cache. I read her mocking a student both in class and on her blog about being so exhausted they basically passed out in the classroom. I read her describing her students in horrible ways. This, to me, isn’t someone saying “Arg, I have so much frustration about teaching, kids these days don’t pay attention and demand so much!!” I read someone who talked about how much she loathed her students.

        I’ve taught high school and TAed in university. I get that teachers are held to a very strict standard, and that students can be horrible to deal with (my first TA gig involved death threats over a B). But this really isn’t the same thing as expressing some frustration with teaching and students. This is openly mocking students, including students with disabilities, in a blog that had her first name and last initial and included her photo for easy confirmation of who was writing it. This was a blog she shared with her friends and her family, which means it wasn’t just a space for her to vent, but a space for her to perform her venting in the same way that our blogs are. And part of her performing of it was calling her students “rat like”, referring to girls as dressing like “street walkers”, and talking about calling in sick just to avoid a student.

        And she blogged about it from work. Maybe only once, but the people I know in other jobs who have blogged about them from work have also been fired.

        I think we’d agree that there’s a ridiculous amount of concern about what teachers do with their off-duty hours, and I think that should stop. But I also think that anyone who has no problem with writing a public blog post calling a teenaged student a “rude, beligerent, argumentative fuck” needs to ask herself what she’s doing teaching them if she hates them so much.

  1. Thank you for this post. Something about that story didn’t sit right with me and you were able to put it down in words. I appreciate that.

  2. Well… I agree with you that teachers should be able to complain about their jobs like everyone else, but you seem to be saying that they can do that because kids deserve to be complained about, being “lazy and narcissistic”. I disagree with this. Teachers can complain because that’s what people do, but just like anyone who badmouths other people, they have to own up to it and apologize if those people find out.

    This isn’t like a store clerk complaining about customers in general, she was talking about a certain group of people she works with every day – a group she has real, actual power over (again, completely unlike a store clerk). She gets to judge these people, evaluate everything they do and decide their futures. She has more influence over them and their time than any boss will ever have. It’s not too much to ask that she handles this power carefully and resists the temptation to dismiss her students as lazy, rude, uppity whiners when they don’t do what she wants.

    Kids don’t have a choice about school. Your students do, so you get to hold them accountable. You can expect them to do what you tell them, because they chose to go to college and take your class and thereby accepted you as their teacher. You have a social contract with them.

    This teacher’s students didn’t choose. Kids are obligated by law to go to school up to a certain age (I don’t know what that age is in America). I don’t know if high school is included in that, but even if it’s not, it’s pretty much mandatory anyway since there are no real alternatives (it’s not like a sixteen-year-old can just get a job and support themselves). And you just don’t get to trap people in a building all day and force them to do stuff and then complain if they seem resentful. You just don’t.

    Society’s excuse for this is of course that kids don’t know what’s best for them, and I agree that there is no good alternative to organized education, but that doesn’t mean that school is always good for people either. School is an institution. It’s more similar to prison or (mental) hospitals than to parenting. People naturally hate being forced. It’s completely unreasonable to expect kids to submit happily and willingly. Children may do it, but teenagers are almost adults – they don’t accept being institutionalized, and when they show it, the people in power call them lazy, rude whiners.

    This teacher clearly has a sense of entitlement herself. She thinks that she is entitled to be obeyed without question or any sign of hesitation or unwillingness. She’s not.

    1. And you just don’t get to trap people in a building all day and force them to do stuff and then complain if they seem resentful. You just don’t.

      YES, this. Thanks for saying this better than I could.

      1. “She” doesn’t “trap people in a building all day”, the law does. The law that determines up to what age kids go to school, and that same law that determines a teacher is responsible if the kids leave the room during school time and injure themselves. And besides, I’d like to remind you that children in the US can be (and often are) homeschooled. They are not forced by law – and even less by their teachers! – to sit in a building “all day” and “do stuff” that they don’t like to do. Maybe their parents send them to school. So why don’t we just blame parents for parking their kids in school and force their kids to go to school?

      2. Nobody is saying that she is the one responsible for kids having to go to school. But the fact remains that it’s not the kids’ choice to be there, so expecting them to never act resentful is unrealistic.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. Try tell parents that their kid is not as gifted as they believe, and you risk being eaten alive (yes, I speak from experience. And from my mother’s too, since she taught middle school for 40 years before retiring).

    1. I’m looking forward to the “context” that makes it okay to mock students with disabilities on one’s public blog. And why is reading what she originally wrote somehow not reading what she said in context, but reading her defense of how oppressed she is because her students found what she wrote and were angered by it is?

    2. Were you honestly implying that parents can just choose to homeschool their children instead of sending them to school? Because that’s more than a little ridiculous, and I’d like to remind you that a class analysis is really important in this respect. Most parents can’t afford to homeschool their children and to suggest that they can is an incredibly privileged stance to take. Parents don’t “park their kids in school,” they send their children to school because they can’t afford to not be working during the day, or don’t have the educational experience to homeschool their children, or are caregivers for other members of their family, etc. It seems like you could use a little context on the reality of people’s lives whose aren’t like yours.

      1. Homeschooling certainly isn’t an option for everyone, and I agree that the current schooling system does not work well for everyone. I do, however, take issue with the equivalence between school and prison or school and a mental institution. Perhaps this is the idealist in me, but given that society requires people to have some sort of education in order to be economically viable, I do think that education–provided by the state at no cost to its citizens beyond taxes–is a basic human right. While one can take issue with the way in which school is provided, I do not think that it’s a form of oppression imposed upon children. Far from it.

        Does this mean that students need to walk into the classroom with smiles plastered on their faces and thank every teacher and administrator they see for this sweet gift they’ve been provided? Absolutely not. Does it mean that they don’t get to feel disgruntled at times? No. But it does not mean that they get to throw chairs at the teacher (this has actually happened to my partner).

        Furthermore, like it or not, having to do what one doesn’t want to do and be where one doesn’t want to be is a fundamental part of living in a civil society. Sometimes I don’t want to go to work. Sometimes I don’t feel like grading papers, but I know that if I want to keep my job, if I want to continue feeding and clothing and housing myself, I have to do it, even if I occasionally feel resentful about it. Kids sometimes don’t want to work or don’t want to be in class. That’s fine. But it’s the teacher’s state mandated duty to ensure that that kid doesn’t fall through the cracks. So she badgers them to do their homework. She calls their parents when they cut class. She doles out second chances, and third chances. Because that’s the job she is required to do. Because the consequences of leaving high school without a diploma are often (though not uniformly) dire, and we as a society have an interest in ensuring that as many kids get diplomas as possible, both for self-interested economic reasons and for social justice reasons.

        And an individual student’s failure to cooperate in this situation is no less frustrating because it is understandable. Because teachers enter their field with the goal of reaching out to kids and helping them get through school. That is their job, and they are held accountable when a student fails.

      2. Uhm… who other than parents can “choose” whether their kids go to school or not? Actually no, I wasn’t suggesting that only wealthy parents can homeschool their kids. As a matter of fact, I know parents on unemployment who choose to homeschool their kids.

        Moreover, talking about “context (now that word comes in handy, doesn’t it?) on the reality of people’s lives”, it’s offensive on your part to assume that I speak from a privileged standpoint, and I can assure you, it is not the case. I am simply another instructor, one who survives on the crumbs paid by the education system to people who are held responsible for whatever students DON’T DO. Have you ever noticed? If students do well, it’s the STUDENT’S ability that shines. If a student fails, it’s the TEACHER’S fault. But it has been said above and elsewhere that it doesn’t matter how much effort teachers put into their job: if students are NOT receptive, there is nothing the teacher can do short of wishing s/he could make the kids learn by osmosis.

        Her students can be angered, of course, after all she complained about THEM – but for what? For not doing their job. For failing to comply with basic requirements such as HOMEWORK. Or with basic etiquette: when someone talks to you, do not fall asleep in front of them. How would you like it if, on your workplace, your interlocutor fell asleep while you’re talking? Or texted on their phone instead of listening to what you’re saying? Or chewed gum with a soundtrack to it? Yawned? Picked their nose? Chatted with someone else? Seriously? That is what a lot of kids do in class instead of paying attention. Teachers are NOT parents. But how come we blame instructors if parents fail to teach basic manners to their children?

        But then, doesn’t she have the right to be angered as well? When she is held personally responsible for the failures of students who do NOT care about school? She is doing her job – namely, teaching, as she was hired to do, in compliance with her job contract, in compliance with state curricula, with standardized requirements for national testing. The students are not. If they even remotely resemble every other teenager on earth, they hate school, they hate homework, they come home and spend time on the phone, or facebook, or in front of the TV. How come she is responsible for that? And how come she is held responsible for stating that some teenager can, in fact, be incredibly rude and disrespectful to the point of calling a teacher “a fucking bitch” for ASSIGNING HOMEWORK???

        Now, she may have overlooked the fact that nothing on the web is private, google cache or not, and I can agree on the fact that she could have been a tad more careful on that front. But that is a far cry from escorting her out of the school grounds for writing what many teachers, at one time or another, have felt, thought, voiced, dreamt of, whispered, about their students. Being frustrated about our students (or the administrators, for that matter) doesn’t make us bad teachers, in the least. Or are you telling me that you NEVER experienced frustration at work? Or with a coworker? And that you NEVER came home to your significant other, or talked on the phone to a friend, and vented about the day at work? Never? Not even once in your life? Venting, in my humble opinion, is what keeps us sane, at the end of the day (take a look here, if you don’t believe me: http://collegemisery.com/). Venting is what prevents us from blowing up when we know that an unfounded comment written by a lazy student could cost us our job.

        Oh, and one last thing. My line on “parents parking their kids in school” was sarcastic. And fyi, so are much of Natalie Munroe’s so-called “insults towards disabled kids.”

      3. The insulting comments about disabled kids were beyond the pale for a person in a position of power, but I am sympathetic to much of your frustration.

        That said, I’m getting pretty close to shutting down comments on this thread, as both sides have said there piece and I worry that this is rapidly moving from heated to unproductive. They’ll remain open for now, but try to keep it civil. Thanks!

      4. While one can take issue with the way in which school is provided, I do not think that it’s a form of oppression imposed upon children. Far from it.

        I disagree entirely. School can take up nearly a decade and a half of a child’s life. It’s a place that tells you what to do not just while you’re in school, but while you’re at home as well. And not every kid is going to do well in that environment, but very little acknowledgement is made of the point that kids learn in different ways and different styles. Instead, kids that don’t fit the mold are punished and told to try harder. Maybe school isn’t a form of oppression for those kids who do well in a school environment, but for the rest it can range from uncomfortable to hellish.

      5. So the alternative is what? What would the emancipation of students from the slavery of schooling look like, exactly?

      6. Well, to me, it would look like a system where kids can choose what to learn about and how, with teachers there to assist them. The Montessori model is one way to do that, but there are others. In terms of a shorter-term solution, I’d say repeal the NCLB system that mandates “teaching to the test” and punishing schools that do badly. For starters.

        But I’d just like to say that you don’t need to have a solution in order to point out that something is a problem. I don’t have a solution for world hunger, but I have no qualms about pointing out that it’s a huge problem that needs to be solved.

        My position on this whole matter is basically: Yes, people should be able to complain about their jobs, and that includes teaching, but I also don’t think it’s reasonable to expect students to show up every day fresh-faced and ready for a new day of rote learning and drudgery. No, it’s not the teachers’ fault that students are coerced into a situation that many of them hate, and it sucks that they bear a lot of the brunt of that hate. But it sucks to have to go to school. It sucks to be a kid with few rights and little autonomy. The students are not what needs to change about our educational system.

      7. Ok, I think you and I are in agreement about that, even if I find the assertion that the status of student is a de facto status of oppression problematic, because I would argue that being deprived of education and, say, forced to work for very low wages in a textile factory or because a white community refuses to provide educational resources to black children is a much worse form of oppression, and compulsory public schooling has been instrumental in moving toward the enfranchisement of marginalized groups. Because if every student is required to attend school, then adults are required to provide it. We can argue over the way in which it is provided, but overall, I would argue that the provision of public education by state has been a net good in the cause of human and civil rights.

        NCLB and standardized testing are ineffective loads of bullshit. On that we can agree.

    3. She’s saying she didn’t mean to mock students with disabilities, she just randomly picked the completely innocuous image that does so to completely innocuously comment on students she didn’t like, and her reasons this is okay is because she has family members with disabilities.

      There are thousands of images one could use to mock students one doesn’t like. She just happened to pick one of the ones that mocks students with disabilities.

      You know, I could forgive that, if anyplace in her defensive diatribe about how she can’t be ableist because she has family members with disabilities, she had said “I’m sorry for using such an offensive image.” She didn’t. She just said “I didn’t mean it.”

      I wonder why students don’t learn to take responsibility for their actions.

  3. The thing is, the students went looking for trouble. Why is it that there is not a lesson to be learned here? You know, you go looking for trouble you find it. Students cannot bother to check homework assignments on a teacher’s page (the teacher’s website connected from the school’s site), and cannot bother to adhere to the dress code (a major problem that causes so much time and energy), but they know keywords that will lead them to a website that they can use to complain about. It is not as if the teacher gave them the website, they went looking!

    1. That “they went looking for it” aspect has been bugging me a bit too, though it does seem Luke she could have been more cautious.

      I’ve seen campaigns to get unpopular teachers fired get unbelievably nasty and unfair. One pissed off student can do a ton of damage.

  4. Please don’t compare students to employees. The school system has employees – they are called teachers. Students are not employees. They are the product.

    Employees agree to show up every day and perform certain activities in exchange for money. Theoretically, they can choose their profession and place of work (obviously it’s not a completely free choice though). They are producing something, or performing a service.

    Kids, on the other hand, get one “profession” only: student. And they don’t get to not be students. They are forced to show up at school and do school assignments, in exchange for nothing. Students are not producing anything or performing any kind of service – instead, the work they do in school is supposed to improve THEM, according to someone else’s idea of improvement. Also, they get no reward for it – all they get is promises. If you stay in school, you will later be able to get a job and earn money, or you will be able to go on to tertiary education and study whatever you want. Promise!

    The kids who don’t trust that promise (often for good reasons – classism, racism and sexism affect kids too) and don’t feel improved by doing schoolwork quickly lose their motivation, as does anyone who works for no reward. A working adult gets rewarded every month. Kids are supposed to delay their gratification TWELVE YEARS, and the gratification isn’t even all that great – the jobs you can get with only a high school education pretty much suck. But if you DON’T stay in school, it’ll be even worse! All stick, no carrot.

    You have to have a staggering amount of trust or privilege to keep believing, for years and years, that the carrot will come. Most kids, even the privileged ones, will have crises of faith. When school seems meaningless, by taking your time and energy and giving nothing back, why not fall asleep in class? Why not complain about homework? Teachers tend to take any resistance and mistrust personally and feel that the students are being “rude” or “lazy” to spite them, but I think that’s misdirected. Lack of motivation and cooperation is the logical outcome of the education system’s design. Teachers who hate “lazy” students are expecting them to behave like machines, holding them to an unreasonable standard. No one can work for nothing.

    1. I never said that students don’t have the right to dislike school. I’m saying that it is the teacher’s job to get them to graduation, and that more or less guarantees that some student-teacher relationships under the current system will be adversarial.

      That said, I find your position as a whole a bit perplexing. If we can agree that it was ill-advised for a teacher to vent her (still understandable, in my opinion) frustrations in a manner that could become public, what limits do you place on the rights of students to express their frustration? And what would you allow a teacher to do in order to ensure that the classroom remains a conducive environment for learning? The fact of the matter is that the ways in which one student’s dissension can manifest (texting or talking in class, falling asleep, refusing to do class work) can rapidly cause the learning environment to disintegrate and can monopolize instructor time and attention, such that even those who want to be there aren’t able to learn.

      Would you propose that students who don’t want to go to school simply be allowed to drop out? Many of them already do, and the long term consequences of dropping out tend to be pretty dire and tend to disproportionately impact the very groups you mention.

      In short, I’m having a hard time seeing what you would advocate in practice. If all you’re trying to do is say that this teacher should not have written these things in this particular way, then I’ve already conceded that point, but cooperation between teachers and students is essential in order for a decent education to be available to everyone, and teachers have a right to insist on decorum in the classroom in order to ensure that the environment is conducive to everyone’s learning, and trying to achieve that is often an uphill battle. It’s a two-way street, and while student are not employees, they are members of the segment of civil society contained in the school, and as such they have particular responsibilities. No, they are not entirely there by choice (though in my state, you can drop out in 9th grade), and they may be oppressed in various ways along the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, or disability. But you seem to be arguing that just being a student is, regardless of anything else, a form of oppression (feel free to correct me if I read you wrong), and that is a tough one for me, because it implies that students have the right to rise up against their oppressors, and I’m not sure who that is exactly. The public employees who make $35,000 a year and whose livelihood absolutely depends on their ability to get students through the system? That seems unfair. One might possibly argue instead that both are caught in a system with lofty intentions and often (though not uniformly) poor execution. Sometimes teachers are themselves at fault for what happens intheir classrooms, especially if they are exhibiting bias against non-privileged students, but students also have the ability to impact the classroom environment, and in order for the social contract of the classroom to work, they have to live up to their responsibilities.

  5. I want to reiterate an important thing first: The law varies from place to place, and in the UK and a lot of other places, education is compulsory, school is not.

    If you’re a child who is about to commit suicide because of bullying at your school, or you’re the parent of that child, that is very, very important information.

    So it really matters that people don’t go around saying “Children have to go to school, it’s the law”, unless (a) that’s qualified by reference to the place and (b) it’s somewhere there really is a law to that effect. I know of children who were forced to keep going back to school – in their case, the site of repeated abuse – for weeks or months when their parents would have been really willing to take them out to end their suffering, because the parents had been misinformed by the people around them and believed they had no legal choice but to coerce their child. In the UK, the State actively misinforms parents about the law in this area (for whatever reason – probably connected with a fear of immigrant cultures).

    But you seem to be arguing that just being a student is, regardless of anything else, a form of oppression (feel free to correct me if I read you wrong), and that is a tough one for me, because it implies that students have the right to rise up against their oppressors, and I’m not sure who that is exactly.

    This is something I’ve been thinking about, so I’ll have a go at answering it.

    (This is possibly sort of off topic for this thread, and more on topic for your new post which I just saw, but I’m going to bounce off this quote anyway for now.)

    I wouldn’t say that being a student is a form of oppression.

    I would say that children are an oppressed class, but that it’s not possible to transfer an analysis of other oppressions directly onto that class and have it immediately make sense. I suspect the “rising up” part is one of the bits which probably doesn’t directly transfer.

    I would also say (and I’d be surprised to be contradicted) that many children and young people are coerced or tricked into their place in the school hierarchy. A combination of rewards, punishments, and never letting them think there’s any alternative gets them there, rather than an intrinsic desire for what’s available.

    On the other hand, I do also know (by virtue of being part of a non-schooling network where I live) dozens of children who are not coerced into school. And I know a few who have freely chosen to go to school knowing that they didn’t have to. (So let’s not over-generalise in that direction either.)

    And some of the children who aren’t coerced into school haven’t been coerced into other teaching relationships “for their own good” either, but have a lot of choice about what they learn and when and from what or whom. Which does work – not surprisingly, in that there is lots of research linking autonomously chosen learning goals with educational success.

    There are single parents with very little income who successfully unschool, so it’s not simply a “middle class luxury”; but yes there are parents who are prevented from giving that time to their children by purely economic reasons. This is linked to wider issues such as the undervaluing of parenting, class inequality, and other things we might reasonably want to change in an ideal world. There are also children for whom school is a refuge from an abusive home environment.

    On the other hand, there are also lots of parents who are prevented from taking an unschooling path only by relentless propagation of myths – about the ways people learn, about the nature of autonomous education, and not least (as noted above) about the law. There are lots of parents (including relatively privileged ones) whose first encounter with non-school education evokes the phrase “I could never do that”. And actually most of them could easily do better for their children than a poor school could, or (for some children with idiosyncratic needs and gifts) better even than an excellent school could – but they don’t realise it, in part because they think they’d have to teach the child everything rather than facilitate the child’s learning. Which are two very different things. And, in some cases, the parent’s lack of confidence is directly related to their own disempowering experiences of being in school.

    in order for the social contract of the classroom to work, they have to live up to their responsibilities.

    I can agree with that as a factual statement about how a typical school classroom works. But how did those responsibilities become “theirs” – the child’s? Did they have a choice of a different social contract instead? Usually not.

    I think what you’re describing there is how or why the current default organisation of education in western culture requires children as a class to be coerced. (I say “as a class” because not all individuals need to be equally coerced to get them to fit the expected role.) It’s linked with having teacher/student ratios which are really demanding for a teacher, and not enough choice for the children about what to learn when (so that you often or always have people in the room who aren’t interested in the subject for its own sake).

    and we as a society have an interest in ensuring that as many kids get diplomas as possible, both for self-interested economic reasons and for social justice reasons.

    Yes, if by “get diplomas” you mean “are able to live well and contribute their skills and energy to the world” :-)

    If you haven’t already read it, can I recommend John Taylor Gatto’s “Dumbing us down: the hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling”? I think you’d enjoy it. (meannig ladysquires – of course I don’t know whether anyone else who happens to read this comment would enjoy it :-) ) He’s not anti-teacher, he was New York City Teacher of the Year in 1990. (One of the promo quotes from the book is “I’m still baffled by how someone so forthright would have been named Teacher of the Year”. :-) ) If you get a version with intros from other people, you can safely skip those i.m.o., just go straight to his own intro of himself.

    1. Gatto writes from a libertarian position that I find interesting in theory but problematic in practice. You can read my latest post for more on why, but basically it amounts to the fact that lack of compulsory education has historically meant a lack of equal access to education. Furthermore, the kind of auto-didacticism advocated by anti-schooling advocates–while appealing to those who are already intellectually curious and have access to the resources to educate themselves–is, like home schooling, really only available to a privileged minority.

      In fact, I worry that people like Gatto and Holt get picked up mostly by the sorts of people who would like to defund public education altogether, which would leave us only with private school (most of which are religious) and homeschooling, which I think would be a catastrophe. They correctly identify problems with the current schooling system but are unable to articulate alternatives beyond blowing the whole system to smithereens. It’s solving a problem with a sledgehammer when what you need is a scalpel.

      1. To say that homeschooling is only available to a privileged minority is nonsense. We’ve been home schooling while hovering near the poverty line for years. Homeschooling is not available to everybody and isn’t a good idea for everybody. On the other hand, a lot of people who know their children are not happy in school are a little too attached to their comfort zones, safe beliefs and above all the opinions of their adult peer groups to try something that would be inconvenient.

        Homeschooling is often picked up by people with whom I share nothing politically or culturally. Gatto is invoked by unpleasant social conservatives with crummy agendas. So what? Liberal dogma also uses good writers to questionable purposes. Dogma in general dumbs down famously.

        Might I point out that Gatto did not call for not funding schools in “Dumbing Us Down”, but instead actually using public money for education (rather than the institution of education). There is a big difference between the two. And a scalpel won’t fix it. But given the way things work in our society, nothing that is de-funded is ever re-funded. I’d be happy to have my taxes pay for public education. I just wouldn’t waste my children’s childhoods sending them to school.

        School for children is largely the equivalent of a 40 hour a week job that, I assure you, does not prepare them for anything that they will be amply awarded for as adults. Adulthood could care less about your ability to take standardized tests, your adaptability to the generalized curriculum. You will be rewarded for what you are good at and care about, and continue to care about, once no bells are ringing. You might as well start finding out what that would be when you are still a child, as well as finding out how to be alone with yourself and controlling your own time spaces.

    2. Which does work – not surprisingly, in that there is lots of research linking autonomously chosen learning goals with educational success.

      Yes. This is what I would change. I think the school system that mandates that every kid must learn this thing, at this age, at this time, by doing these specific things, is what’s oppressive here. If you buy into that, everything becomes about keeping kids in line instead of about learning. What school mostly teaches you is how to do school.

      I love Gatto. John Holt is great as well.

      1. Ok, but that is a veeeeeerrry different argument than saying that school itself or compulsory education are forms of oppression. One suggests that you want to reform the way schooling is conducted within the broad limits of the current system, a goal that most educational reformers and teachers share. The other suggests that you’d like to blow up the whole business.

        Most teachers I know would like to implement some form of self-directed learning and student self-assessment in their classrooms, but state mandated curricular requirements frequently do not allow for it. I suppose I am trying to argue that teachers are, in fact, your allies here.

      2. I think compulsory education as it is currently implemented (and has been in pretty much its entire history) is oppressive. I don’t see that changing without huge overhauls to the system and changes in the very way we think about children and learning.

        I don’t disagree that teachers are allies of people who want to reform the educational system, but complaining about how ungrateful, lazy, and disrespectful students are is not being an ally. Teachers are basically the messengers in this case and it sucks that they take the brunt of students’ dissatisfaction, but I think it’s unrealistic to expect that to change without major changes to the school system.

  6. I have read all these comments, and looked at the woman blog in horror.
    If I were the parents of this child’s named and in fact, if this was a teacher of a child of mine, I would have the woman sued, never mine sacked. What an idiot, There is a big difference between Instructing and teaching. I am so glad to see that the primary schooling here in Scotland, has changes so much and is really pro child and about teaching through play ect. I think secondary needs a complete over hall too, think this is starting now with the teaching for excellence. It really encourages parents to get involved with their kids education and you are encouraged to go and help out in class when ever you wish.
    I really saw a difference in kids when I lives and taught in Switzerland, the kids are so nice and polite and engaged, but the schooling is much friendlier and interesting, They do lessons in the morning and then go skiing in the afternoon or something else equally as fun. Teachers are engaging too not like the dronnie crabit old ones i remember having at school. To many kids have been and are being failed by their teacher/schools.
    Kids need to feel confident and they need to trust their teacher, this woman has blown any chance of a pupil’s trusting her out the water, flaming teacher I wouldn’t let her teach my dog let alone my kids.
    You want to rant, Do it in away that you cant damage the very people your employed and paid to help. Parents can be as proactive and involved as they can but it is at school they pick up bad manners and rude behavior. I always thought it was from the other pupils but after reading Natalie Monroe’s blog i have realized that in some cases the teachers are rude ignorant and foul mouthed as well. What an example.

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