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Can Teachers Sound Their Barbaric Blogs Over the Rooftops of the World?  by Mark Franek

Talk about getting hoisted by one’s own petard. Consider the story of Natalie Munroe, English teacher at Central Bucks East High School, in suburban Philadelphia, who used to tell her students to watch what they post online. Over a year ago, ignoring her own advice, she published a series of petulant blogs criticizing parents and students.

They are rude, disengaged, lazy whiners,” wrote Ms. Munroe, referring to students. “They curse, discuss drugs, talk back, argue for grades, complain about everything, fancy themselves entitled to whatever they desire, and are just generally annoying.

Earlier this year, students and parents stumbled upon Ms. Munroe’s blog and brought the rantings to the School’s attention. Poof. No more blog. And no more Ms. Munroe.

She’s been suspended, with pay, but her superintendent has indicated to the press that she may be fired. Last month (Feb., 2011), this story went national, pitting freedom of speech advocates against parents and students everywhere who want to have their Facebook and eat it too.

As a high school English teacher for nearly 20 years, I have some advice for just about everyone involved in this unfortunate series of events. A controversy the size of this one is lurking in all school communities around the country.

First of all, to English teacher Ms. Munroe. You should have boned up on your Ernest Hemingway and realized that good teachers, like Hemingway’s heroes, are confident, competent and exude grace under pressure. They certainly don’t sneer at schoolchildren and whine publicly about their problems.

Not that I don’t empathize with Ms. Munroe.

Early in my teaching career, I wrote the following note to a student who had nearly failed my class: “Spend more time on your brain and less time on your new car. Ten years from now, your brain will still be hanging around and someone else will be driving your car.

Pretty good advice, if you ask me. However, the pimply-faced kid continued to park his BMW convertible next to my rusty Mazda for the remainder of his time at the school, rubbing his shiny rims in my face. It’s not the child’s fault if he’s privileged. It’s usually not his fault if he’s rude, either. A sense of fundamental decencies is not doled out equally at birth, F. Scott Fitzgerald reminds us. Teaching would be a pitiful bore if students all went to Harvard.

To Central Bucks East parents and parent everywhere: Give Ms. Munroe a break. You know that your kids can be obnoxious little brats. Ms. Munroe speaks for every teacher who has ever had a bad day, a terrible week, or a horrible year. Most adults don’t know what it’s like to endure a 4th period class right before lunch with 30 or so adolescents who would like nothing more than to get under your skin every day and cause a raging headache.

I’ve had students plagiarize entire papers for my class, and watched as their parents used every excuse in the book for their child’s behavior. I’ve watched one set of parents send their child to the Bahamas instead of making him serve his suspension at home.

I’ve watched teens brazenly disrespect school rules at dances and basketball games, sometimes throwing up on bleachers - or even right on teachers, doing their best in light of the situation. And I’ve witnessed parents arrive at the school’s door and try to argue that it must have been something their child ate earlier in the evening. Yeah, right.

Most parents realize that teaching is a difficult job to do well, year after year. Most parents are grateful when teachers and coaches take a genuine interest in their children. And most parents realize that teachers, like students, sometimes make mistakes, even big ones.

To Central Bucks East School officials: Please don’t fire Ms. Munroe, which would probably result in costly litigation and wasted taxpayer money. Listen to what your attorney should be telling you - that Ms. Munroe’s blogging activity, as stupid and as misguided as it was, is probably protected free speech. She didn’t use the name of her school or the names of students or parents. There doesn’t appear to be a policy in the employee handbook forbidding such activity, and, even if there was one, you might have to pursue every teacher in the district who so much as sniffed in the wrong digital direction at work.

Absent a clear policy and a major disruption to the learning environment and Ms. Munroe is probably free to sound her barbaric blog over the roofs of the world, to paraphrase Walt Whitman.

The only question for school officials in suburban Philadelphia and around the country is this: Can the Ms. Munroes of the world teach or not? Exercising poor judgment in the blogosphere shouldn’t get you fired. But it sure will cement your reputation as the wicked witch of CB East.

Mark Franek, Ed. D., was the academic dean at the Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, PA.

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