An Anti-Teacher Witch Hunt

News outlets reported on Thursday that Natalie Munroe, a teacher in Pennsylvania, had been suspended, pending termination, for writing critical comments about her students on her blog. 

According to the articles (such as here and here), she had written that her students were “lazy” and “whiners,” among other things.  My initial thought was to ask if she had directed comments at any certain students, or called them by name.  It appears that she hadn’t.  She did, however, use profanity on the blog; while it is unclear from the reports if it was directed at the students, it probably was, and that would be wrong–abusive language is never appropriate.  She also seems to have made comments about children’s physical appearances, and written things like, “I hate your kid.”  Yes, that’s over the line.

But the headlines, the complaints against her, and the comments on articles I’ve read mostly excoriate her for criticising students in general, not for the inappropriate content itself.  Parents and students at the school are outraged that a teacher could write about frustrations over poor student performance. 

Really?  Have any of the offended parties here bothered to consider what merit the criticisms might have?  Is it really so awful to suggest that maybe, just maybe, some teens actually are lazy whiners? 

Before anyone goes crying “Blasphemy!” and prepares to storm my castle with pitchforks and torches, can you see the irony of the situation?  If the teacher here was saying that her students and their parents are self-absorbed and entitled, how exactly is their response proving her wrong? 

About a year and a half ago, a report was released which studied 30,000 American teens and found that a third of teens are thieves, two thirds are cheaters, and about 80% lie to their parents.  Fully 93%, however, said that they are proud of their good character.  Wow. 

As I pondered this news yesterday, I caught yet another student cheating in one of my own classes.  Right after a quiz, I saw that a girl had something written on her hand.  When I asked her what it was, she tried to erase it, but it was in pen.  Inspecting her hand, I saw answers to two of the quiz questions, even including the numbers of the questions that the answers were for.  She admitted that a friend from an earlier class gave her those answers.  Her mother agreed that detention was necessary–thank goodness the evidence was indisputable. 

By the way, kids, here’s a tip: don’t write answers on your hand if you sit in the front of the room, right next to the teacher

Incidentally, even with those two answers, she would have failed the test, anyway.

Uh oh.  Could this story offend anyone?  Might anyone think that a relevant, tasteful, anonymous true story has no place in the public realm?  Should I start updating my resumé? 

This reminds me of one incident several years ago, where a class discussion about future plans prompted one girl, who has long since graduated, to express a wish to work in medicine.  I asked about her math and science classes and grades, both of which she said were average.  I said that she would need to get better grades in harder classes to get into medical school. 

Her father went through the roof.  He made sure to cause grief for me and my superiors because, as he put it, I was ruining his little girl’s dream. 

On the contrary, I was the one helping her make that dream a reality.  What was he doing that was constructive?  Like too many parents, perhaps he was more concerned with his immediate ease and popularity than with long term results. 

I hope that girl did achieve her goal.  I don’t think she would have, at the rate she was going, but for her sake, I hope I’m wrong.  It would be wonderful if she succeeds, but I’m not in the habit of pacifying feelings by denying reality.  That does far more harm, ultimately, than a little truth does today. 

Oops.  I did it again.  Should I clean out my desk by the end of the day?

Obviously, this Pennsylvania story resonates with me.  After all, in the week before this news broke, I wrote an apologia for discouraged teachers (it means that we do care), and a satire about the bad attitudes of some parents and students (it means that I have high standards).  I think that such writings are a worthwhile expression, and foster positive conversation about important topics.  But what if someone chooses to be offended?  As in all areas of our society now, whoever feels insulted is automatically holy, right? 

As I noted here three years ago, the Sword of Damocles hangs over teachers by a very slender thread.

It’s also especially ironic that this furor about a teacher who dares to question the perfection of her students is erupting just weeks after the furor over a memoir which lauds the effective harshness of Chinese mothers:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up.

Just last week, as our family was out running errands, one of my own preschoolers took a  piece of candy from next to a cash register and put it in his pocket.  When we found it on him later, we marched him back to the store, made him confess and apologize, and had him pay for the candy out of the allowance he’d earned doing chores.  Such actions aren’t really strict–they’re just the basic obligation.  How sad that so many of us don’t bother to even shoot that high.  But I do believe in doing things right, and the best I can.

Should I, or any teacher, expect less in our classrooms?

8 comments on “An Anti-Teacher Witch Hunt

  1. I feel that for her to publicly vent like this, when there are easy options available, was foolish. It is easy to create an anonymous blog (waves hand). Hers had her picture, name and lots of identifying details.

    It’s like having an affair with someone who is 16. Technically, it might be legal, but you’re a teacher and she’s your student and suddenly the rules have changed.

    The divine Miss M. crossed too many lines.

  2. True enough, fellas–we can distinguish between “general criticism” and “individual insults,” but many, it seems, can’t. Surely, for the profanity, insults, and viscious attacks, she’s wrong and deserves punishment. My worry is about the chilling effect such persecution can have on any future public discourse. The message here is: “Pipe down, teachers. We’re watching you, and if you say anything we don’t like, we’ll get you.”

  3. I remember an experienced family therapist tell me, that the one lesson most parents he had met hadn’t learned was that the most important thing parents can do is teach their kids to handle disappointment in a safe atmosphere. There, they can vent their frustration and know that mom and dad still love them and trust they want their best.

  4. Although the teacher in question did not choose the wisest course to vent her frustration, I think it becomes a slippery slope in terms of free speech if this teacher is actually terminated. Unless she recorded activities that were actually illegal or in breach of her contract with the school, I don’t think it should result in termination. I’m not necessarily defending what she said, but rather her right to say it. Sure, it was a foolish thing to do, and she will have to bear the consequences for her words in terms of her reputation as a teacher.

    Furthermore, an online forum may not be the wisest place to vent one’s grievances, given that we all have to own our words. But, I personally wouldn’t go so far to say that people “shouldn’t” broadcast them online. I think that we have become too politically correct in terms of our speech, especially in terms of not offending anyone. In some ways, it already has had a chilling effect on public discourse given that people have to measure their words for fear of reprisal.

    I would be surprised if the teacher’s comments did not have merit given my own HS experience as a student, and what I hear from my teenage daughter about hers. Many of today’s parents do too little to hold their children accountable for their actions, and instead may seek a scapegoat (i.e. teachers, administrators, etc) for their children’s failings. This is not altogether unsurprising given that adults in today’s society try to find any justifiable reason to avoid accountability for their actions.

    I’m not going to get started on the Asian vs. Western parenting reference, as that would be a whole post. (My own western parents were referred to as “Asian parents” by my cousin’s Vietnamese boyfriend) All I will say is that for me, the happy medium is somewhere in between.

  5. Thanks, Velska and Mom. I think the consensus here is this particular blogger may have gone over the line, but the free speech issue needs to be respected, as does the meat and potatoes of the teacher’s (and teachers’) criticisms.

  6. Um Huston,
    I think you’re forgetting that once we allow the liberals to start “inventing” rights, there is no logical place to stop them.

    “Right to healthcare.”
    “Right to owning a home.”
    “Right to not feeling responsible for one’s life and education.”
    “Right to never hear anything that “make’s” them feel bad”
    “Right to control teachers…”

  7. Psychochemiker, sorry, I’m not sure where you’re coming from. I agree with your comment, I’m just don’t see how it relates to my post.

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