Thursday, February 17, 2011

Free Speech and the Ultimate Education Taboo


At least some of the nation is familiar by now with the case of Natalie Munroe.  Munroe stands to lose her job as a teacher because of the comments made on her blog.  The blog has been removed, but the last page cached by Google can still be viewed.  I've read reports of the comments in other news stories and while the comments reflect poor judgement and attitude in general, it does not appear that any of them were directed at a student in general.  Should she lose her job for engaging in this type of free speech?

I have certainly made efforts to skirt some of the major issues and problems facing my school district when writing on this blog for fear that it could lead to negative outcomes, but I have never felt the urge to publicly vent my frustrations regarding students.  Munroe expressed that this blog was a personal blog, never intended for student or administrator viewing.  I believe that lesson number one for all of us is that we give up the right to choose our audience when content is posted online in any forum.  Just this year, students began to discover another blog that I maintain which has become an expression of my religious faith.  When they ask me about it or comment on it at school I start to get a little anxious about what kind of repercussions this could have in my teaching profession.

So how much freedom do teachers have to express themselves and their personal opinons online?  Perhaps a good standard would be that if it is acceptable in public it should be acceptable online.  I cannot pass judgement on this particular case without really seeing not only the comments, but the context of Munroe's musings, but this information is not currently available.  Many teachers have chosen to go the route of sarcasm and parody to anonymously bemoan and complain about difficulties of teaching.  (A prime example being Mr. Teachbad -- be warned, this content is not always G-rated quality)  Even if we draw the line at student directed criticism, how far can a teacher go in criticising the institutions which employ them?

I have frequently resisted the urge to use this forum to raise issues pertaining to my high school and school division, but sometimes I want to open the window on our school to the public and help them see what day-to-day life in the school looks like so they can better understand the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Is that appropriate?


The second issue raised by the "Natalie Munroe Blog Scandal" is that of student motivation and accountability.  Increasingly, this has become the taboo topic for discussion in the public policy forums of education.  I have been lucky to teach mostly seniors in elective Psychology classes for the last six or seven years.  With a few exceptions, they are capable and eager to learn.  But I can vividly remember some of the classes that were not.  My third year of teaching I had already decided that a career change was in order if things did not improve the next.  They did, but as much a result of my students as my effort. 

In responding to the Munroe story, one commenter urged her to get out of the profession anyway because part of the job of a teacher is to motivate these students to learn.  If more people outside of the classroom understood how much of a struggle this can be, the impression of teachers in America would greatly change.  Increasingly, accountability drops in the lap of teachers at the exclusion of all else.  One argument takes the analogy of production.  If a company builds a defective product, the product isn't blamed for coming out flawed.  I've yet to meet a "product" that plays a role in its own development, possessing the autonomy and ability to respond to or rebel against the process which creates it.

I never want to be the teacher, and I would never support a teacher who attempts to make students shoulder the entire responsibility of their own education, but questioning the ability, motivation, or effort of students has become the taboo topic of education.  If nothing else, I hope this event opens the door to looking holistically at how we promote student achievement.  Accountability for administrators in providing solid leadership, accountability for teachers in providing quality instruction, and accountability from students in taking ownership of their learning and achievement.

My thoughts on all of this could change over time, but I believe it really opens the doors for discussion that could benefit our profession and the individuals in it.  What are the limits to teachers' free speech online?  and Is it time that we break the taboo of questioning student responsibility and accountability for their own education?



  1. Interesting post...
    So for the first part Freedom...
    Teachers should remember that they work with people, those who forget that fact do so at their own peril. So you have to be part customer service rep, part politician, and oh yeah...a million other things. No matter where you go, even in the virtual world remember people see you as a teacher and working with kids is serious business. Someone I look up to once told me "if you wouldn't want it taped and shown to someone you respect and care about, don't do it." These were prophetic words and they were spoken before the internet even existed. Does this teacher deserve this?...I'm reluctant to think that her comments so inflammatory or disruptive suspension is warranted. Unwise but doubtfully unacceptable. Other issues to consider: Context, Motivation, Intent, Right and Wrong, Professionalism, where there is smoke...something is smoking. Oh and free speech is more awesome when people are not idiots.

    As for taboo:
    Amping up accountability leads to a great debate. But where does the buck stop? Teachers love to complain...and you might hear on occasion teachers gripe about how students seem to be less able than previous ones(which sounds like the case here). If true it would be due to an indeterminate amount of factors and I suspect many factors would be interconnected. Good luck messing with that issue. Just remember as we get older, the kids we teach stay the same age and eventually most of them will eventually grow up. So keep perspective.

    As teachers we are charged not just with instructing but also with measuring student performance(again I call this a grade and it is one way I hold them accountable). Grades are complex and living things and valid ones reflect not just their knowledge, not just their ability, but overall performance. Grade debates rage on...( Discussing what grade a kid deserves can end up a VERY slippery slope...maybe even taboo. But worth discussing. Frank conversations about why a student got a certain grade may also generate some undesired consequences. Effort, behavior enthusiasm and and even should these matter? I know what I think...and sometimes that's where thoughts should stay. To date there is no scientific way or overall agreement on how to determine grades and hold kids accountable...(so I am not yet totally obsolete) but more and more divisions and companies are pushing for this.

    Some kids potential and ability is superior to their performance. Part of our job is to work to remedy this but to date the science of how to do this is lacking(I don't hate science). If the student is doing OK as they should and can, all is well. When they are not, we've got problems.

    I could go on but will reserve further comment...after all I like my job.

  2. As for student accountability, how about this-- a goal for every teacher and every class would be that students should learn over the course of a year to take greater responsibility for their learning. I do find it ironic that the same people who advocate "innovation" in learning and self-directed and student choice in instruction also blast educators for not motivating students enough. So what is it, should we expect students to learn and get it on their own or should we take some accountability for motivating them to do something.

    As far as the Munroe blog, saying those types of things about students online takes every bit of relationship out of the comments. A few teachers venting over lunch may understand each other, but if that lunch happens to be at the local diner and several parents hear, that's a different thing altogether.