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. 

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Teachers And The Sword Of Damocles

From the Wikipedia entry for “Damocles”:

Damocles …. was an excessively flattering courtier in the court of Dionysius II of Syracuse, a fourth century BC tyrant of Syracuse. He exclaimed that, as a great man of power and authority, Dionysius was truly fortunate. Dionysius offered to switch places with him for a day, so he could taste first hand that fortune. In the evening a banquet was held, where Damocles very much enjoyed being waited upon like a king. Only at the end of the meal did he look up and notice a sharpened sword hanging by a single piece of horsehair directly above his head. Immediately, he lost all taste for the fine foods and beautiful boys and asked leave of the tyrant, saying he no longer wanted to be so fortunate.

Dionysius had successfully conveyed a sense of the constant fear in which the great man lives….Cicero asks, “Does not Dionysius seem to have made it sufficiently clear that there can be nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms?”

The Sword of Damocles is frequently used in allusion to this tale, epitomizing the imminent and ever-present peril faced by those in positions of power. More generally, it is used to denote the sense of foreboding engendered by the precarious situation, especially one in which the onset of tragedy is restrained only by a delicate trigger or chance. Moreover, it can be seen as a lesson in the importance of fully understanding another person’s situation or experience.

Teachers may not be “great men,” but we certainly know what it’s like to work in a position of authority and have the constant threat of random doom hanging over us, like a sword suspended by a single hair.

I think of Damocles every time some innocuous, spontaneous remark is wildly misinterpreted by a student and some poor teacher winds up in the office explaining themselves to a committee.  I think of Damocles and the contorted world of legalistic torture endured by protagonists in Kafka’s surreal nightmares any time I hear of another teacher trying to do their job professionally yet creatively, and in an instant their world is turned upside down because someone ignored context and good will and blindsided them with a frivolous complaint, a melodramatic meeting, or even a lawsuit.

I’ve seen good, earnest teachers tear their hair out after a single word or gesture balloons into an “incident” that needs to be investigated and recorded in their personnel file.  It’s not unusual for administrative supervisors to instruct teachers to screen everything they do to make sure they never say anything that might be used as ammunition against them.  Like parents warn their trusting young children to beware of strangers, leaders on any campus must be careful to train their teachers that humor and compassion are major liabilities.

I’ve made some honest mistakes in my classroom over the years, but I’ve also seen myself subject to what I can only call persecution because, on a capricious whim, some teenager or parent decided not to be tolerant or, heaven forbid, give the benefit of the doubt.  Luckily, nothing has yet done permanent damage to my career, but I have seen it happen to others.  When such tragedies drive a disgusted teacher forever out of their classroom, I can only murmur with Mark Twain, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Police, doctors, and, yes, teachers: the more we strive to invest ourselves in our professions and become more than average, the more we open ourselves to arbitrary opposition.  No good deed goes unpunished.  Truly, the sword of Damocles hangs over us all.