Natalie Munroe, the 30-something Pennsylvania teacher who got in trouble for anonymously referring on her blog to unnamed students as "annoying" and "lazy," is defending the right of teachers to speak freely about difficult working conditions.
Suspended for the blog comments she wrote last year, Ms. Munroe drew both praise and criticism for her challenge of teacher free-speech rights and her unapologetic take on state of the nation's education system, where she says teachers unfairly bear the brunt of blame for the ills of American schools.
The case is causing school districts from San Narciso County in California to Perkiomen Valley in Pennsylvania to rethink regulations around how teachers can use increasingly popular social media and blogging sites. But it also poses a critical question: Can raw, foxhole-style dispatches from teachers improve oftentimes insular central offices and school buildings?
"Ideally, [teacher blogs] are doing two things: helping teachers get through the day and, second, give a peek inside the boiler room so we can see what it's really like in a school," says Alexander Russo, an education blogger in Chicago. "It's easy to romanticize or marginalize what classroom teaching is like, so having these voices out there is a good thing, particularly because there's a lot of frustration right now with the 'war on teachers' where teachers are being blamed" for a plethora of education's ills.
A legal gray area
Courts have largely upheld the rights of students to express themselves about their teachers, but the law is blurrier for teachers. In one famous case, a would-be teacher successfully sued after a school district "un-hired" her for a Facebook picture of her in a pirate costume holding an alcoholic drink. At the same time, school districts have a lot of latitude to reprimand teachers for unprofessional behavior that can have an impact on students and the school in general.
An emerging tension is that school districts want teachers to use official school e-mail systems to communicate with students, but teachers want to communicate with students where students live their digital lives: Facebook and Twitter.
Nationally, there are few hard-and-fast rules for teachers to follow. Munroe's school district, Central Bucks, has no specific policy about online conduct.
Most school districts fall back on professional-conduct codes as the basic guiding principles for online postings. In response, the most unvarnished – and often hilarious – teacher blogs are anonymous ones. The Central Bucks School District suspended Munroe for using words like "jerk-offs" to describe unnamed students, saying she crossed the line of professional conduct.
"Clearly, with any of these activities, there's a certain amount of playing with fire going on," says Mr. Russo.
On her blog, Munroe wrote long, at times profanity-laced missives, often about her personal life, but sometimes about her days at school. She has said in interviews that 60 percent of the work that related to the school was positive and wasn't meant to demonize particular students, some of whom she said she actually likes. Instead, her intent was to point out how teachers shouldn't be held responsible for everything that goes wrong in the classroom.
Someone is always watching
Yet teacher bloggers can't presume that anonymity or small numbers of online followers will protect them from scrutiny.
"Many teacher bloggers criticize students’ motivation and work ethic. Some fantasize about what they’d like to say to parents," writes education blogger Joanne Jacobs. "I’d hate to see teacher bloggers feel constrained to write only happy talk. But it’s wise to assume your students, their parents, your colleagues, and administrators will find your blog eventually."
Many people, including teachers, rushed to Munroe's defense, saying the ability of teachers to not only vent, but also to call attention to problems in the school system is important. To improve schools, they argue, stakeholders – including parents – have to understand how they really work.
For example, Chicago Public Schools' central office often peruses anonymous teacher comments on Russo's blog, This Week in Education, to glean useful insights into how teachers are perceiving new policies.
Curtailing teachers' free speech?
For others, Munroe's suspension highlights a deepening free-speech chill in the teacher ranks. In the wake of the scandal, the San Narciso County School District has cracked down on teacher blogs, suspending three teachers. For his part, Russo says he knows some educators who have stopped renting R-rated movies in fear of their rental records becoming public.
"Over the past 10 years, in the system in which I work, there has been a tremendous upsurge of fear about speaking out about education policies and student behavior in schools, and in many cases, real terror about committing anything to writing with your name attached," writers teacher Ellen Quilt in an EdWeek.com forum. "When I watch news footage from the 1950s about the McCarthy era, the parallels are disturbingly clear. "
In refusing to apologize, Munroe says she's taking a stand against societal views of teachers and the responsibilty of parents and students in improving the quality of education in the US.
"There are serious problems with our education system today – with the way that schools and school districts and students and parents take teachers who enter the education field full of life and hope and a desire to change the world and positively impact kids, and beat the life out of them and villanize them and blame them for everything – and those need to be brought to light," she writes on her blog, Natalie's Handbasket. "If this 'scandal' opens the door for that conversation, so be it."