Some Thoughts on Teacher Bloggers

First, a Story

A teacher I have come to know over the past year is also a blogger. Let’s call her Allison. Allison is a teacher, a mom to two little boys, a wife, a blossoming tech nerd, and a lover of good wine. Allison maintained a blog that shall remain nameless. Her blog featured humorous but also thoughtful stories about her life as a teacher and a mom. She blogged about things like lessons she found entertaining and hysterical that her students thought were weird (that was one of my favorite posts). Or the ridiculousness of some of the right-to-work policies being touted in our state capitals. Or the realities of being a wife and mother — childbirth, wrangling toddlers, and fostering a positive relationship with her husband. She commiserated and communicated with other parents and teachers in her blog. She cussed a little, too.

I loved her blog. Not just as a researcher who is very interested in teachers and the ways in which they tell their stories using digital media. No, I loved her blog as a person. As someone who used to teach, and misses it. As someone who will someday have kids. As someone who loves some good wry humor now and then.

Note the past tense.

I’m not using the past tense because I no longer love Allison’s blog. I’m using the past tense because recently, Allison had to remove all of her blog content and move to a new online space. Start over. Clean slate. But not in a good way, and not for a good reason.

Allison maintains anonymity in her blogging life. Why? Well, her content is kind of snarky and sarcastic (which is part of why I love it). Also, she doesn’t always talk about teaching — she maintains a different network in her life as a blogger, which she wishes to keep separate from her work as a teacher.

Why else? Probably because, when it comes to being a teacher, there are weird stigmas attached to having a life outside of the school. Teachers are humans? What!? Probably also because it’s getting easier and easier for administrators to find reasons to fire teachers. Probably because, for many reasons, teachers are wary of letting their personal lives come too far into the school zone. Afraid of the vulnerability this poses, afraid of attacks on their livelihoods, on their families, on their healthy frames of mind. Teachers, after all, are already getting attacked on the professional front… why risk allowing that into one’s personal life?

What Happened? One of Allison’s students found her blog and was talking to other students about it. A colleague of Allison’s alerted her, and she removed all of the content from online (didn’t download it and move it — actually removed all content). Allison, alarmed by the fact that her once-anonymous blog was “outed” and that her students were aware of it, and concerned about what this would mean for her professionally, went into immediate blogger hiding. She created a new (also anonymous) blogspace, on which she has posted once. She’s starting over.

This pisses me off, folks. Not the starting over part, the needing to part.

I find this very frustrating, for a number of reasons. I’ll address each one separately below, but here they are in brief:

  1. Teachers are held to a standard of moral conduct that is not in keeping with the moral expectations in the rest of our society, and that is based primarily in Christian doctrine. And that’s just messed up.
  2. Teachers have almost no outlet for ever voicing the experiences they have in the classroom OR the experiences they have at home that might influence their approaches to their work.
  3. Those outlets teachers will create for themselves, because of item (1), often need to be masked by pseudonyms, and many teacher bloggers never tell their administrators or even colleagues about their blogs.

Here’s a bit more discussion on 1-3…

(1) Moral Standards

Do I think teachers are held to a higher moral standard than others in our society? Yes. Do I think this is okay? Yes. I need that to be totally clear.

What’s not okay? For teachers like this one, who got fired after writing horrible things about students on her blog, to maintain webspaces where they call out current or past students for being holy terrors. That’s unprofessional and ridiculous, and school districts shouldn’t stand for it. Teachers like these, in my opinion, shouldn’t be teachers anyway — we need to seek out the best in our students and help those parts of them grow! Not denigrate teenagers for being teenagers.

However, for teachers like Allison (or another friend of mine, who we’ll call Sylvia), to feel the need to censor themselves or to make their blogs anonymous because they’re worried the content might reflect poorly on their characters or might result in professional repercussions… that’s ridiculous. Sylvia has since de-anonymized her blog, which deals primarily with educational policy concerns and the life of the overworked English teacher. Allison’s blog was much less ed-y, yet her desire to keep it anonymous is much more pronounced.

Should teachers be strippers? Probably not. Should they deal drugs? Um, no. But dropping the occasional f-bomb in a blog post directed towards an adult mommy-blogger audience? I can see why Allison is worried about this reflecting poorly on her if an administrator caught wind or if all of her students found the post. I would have probably done the same thing she did if it were my blog. But does that mean she shouldn’t be able to engage this other — very rewarding (and even paying) part of her life? Can she not have this other job because her current one holds her to a moral standard that almost no other profession needs to answer to?

Surely, being the leader of children means teachers need to consider their role in shaping those young minds. But though many people have no problem letting our kids watch HBO, they might have a caniption if a teacher gets spotted at a bar by a student (what was the student doing at the bar, one might ask?) or if she curses up a storm with her friends outside of school. In other words, the moral standard teachers get held to is markedly Puritanical (I think) and is entirely unfair. Teachers are people who should be able to live their lives outside of school as productive adult citizens who, like most adults, might happen to swear and drink now and then.

(2) Teacher Venues for Voicing Experiences

Everyone and their great uncle thinks they know about being a good teacher. Well, that’s probably an overstatement — but certainly many people believe they know a lot about teaching, because, well, they grew up around teachers! We’ve all had teachers — good teachers, bad teachers, teachers we remember for that one amazing lesson, teachers we can picture but not name, teachers we keep in contact with for years after we leave their classrooms. It’s easy to have an opinion about what constitutes good teaching, or what makes a teacher effective, simply based on our experiences as people who once went to school, or as people who have kids who go to school, or as people in a society that has schools.

But really, you don’t know teaching until you’ve lived it. Becoming a teacher turned my understanding of the profession upside-down. Does it have its perks? Yes. My mom, who taught middle school math for 20 years before becoming an administrator, will tell you that teaching allowed her to raise us in the way that she wanted to — it allowed her to stay home in the summer with us, and to spend her evenings with us.

But teaching is not for the faint of heart. As a matter of fact, it can be downright heartbreaking sometimes. At other times, it can be the most heartwarming job on the planet. Basically, if you’ve got a weak heart — don’t start teaching. Unless you want to develop palpitations, that is.

The victories of teachers can be truly stunning, the defeats crushing. I remember a student I had when I taught 8th grade — she got pregnant halfway through the year. She was a sharp kid. Her poetry was beautiful and she loved to read. Sometimes she would come in my room and we would talk about the latest young adult novel she discovered. Sometimes she would write a poem “just cuz” and bring it to me for feedback so she could revise it. Not to turn it in, mind you. Just to make it better. One day, her mom emailed me to thank me. Her daughter had told her that she felt like she was just “that pregnant girl” to some of her other teachers (one teacher had said something terrible about her pregnancy to her friends, which I won’t repeat).

When she stood up at an assembly to speak out against race-based bullying at her high school, I was so proud of her I was shaking.

When she dropped out of school at the end of her sophomore year, I was heartbroken.

Teachers need places to tell these stories. The good ones. The sad ones. The ones that help us think about our society more critically, because schools serve as microcosms full of micropeople where the goods and ills of the world we live in play out daily. Blogs are a great way to do this and to reach a wide audience.

(3) They Who Shall Remain Unnamed

Would I openly — unanonymously — blog and teach? Well, I do. But would I do it if I were still a high school teacher? I don’t know, honestly. It would depend on a number of things, including:

  • The content of my blog
  • The supportiveness of my administration
  • The supportiveness of my colleagues
  • The setting in which I taught (rural? urban? suburban?)
  • The community in which I taught (conservative? liberal? diverse?)
  • Whether or not I had tenure, assuming that’s an option.

…and probably a number of other things, as well. Sylvia’s decision to “out” her blogger identity and to blog unanonymously was supported by her colleagues, though (at the time I spoke with her) she hadn’t directly told the principal about her blog. She also lives in a community that is fairly supportive of teachers and education in general, and that would be likely to agree with whatever “controversial” content she or her co-writers, who are colleagues of hers, might post.

I don’t know how much I would be willing to “rock the boat,” so to speak. I’ve never been in a position to make that choice — I became a blogger after I left the classroom. Allison’s decision to stay anonymous makes perfect sense to me. Sylvia’s decision not to also makes sense.

My concern has nothing to do with individual teachers’ decisions to be anonymous or not, but with the system that requires teachers to silence ideas they have that might prove “risky.” What counts as “risky?” Having an opinion about our governor’s education policies could prove risky in some communities. Teaching a lesson on the history of the word nigger could get you fired in other communities. Experimenting with new classroom formats, such as the “flipped” classroom, could prove risky as well. Which would make blogging about these things risky. Which would make attaching one’s name to her blog super risky.

You might be thinking, Liz, who cares if teachers blog anonymously? Why do you care that they need to use pseudonyms? I care because teachers should be recognized for the brave, risky, innovative things they do. Because the fact that teachers feel the (completely understandable) need to de-identify themselves worries me. It sends a message. And that message is “we can’t speak, for fear of reprimand.” For fear of firing, of being misinterpreted, of being discounted or disrespected. And that’s just depressing. Teachers should be able to show off, to showcase themselves, to have digital presences that aren’t masked or hidden.

I have been thinking through a number of these issues a lot in the past few years. I’ve written a few papers on blogging and teaching, on the role of anonymity, and on teacher identity. I’m happy to share readings or other things I’ve written with anyone who wants to know more, or who wants to engage in a conversation about this topic. It’s a loaded one, and one that I struggle to discuss, because I want to remain critical (of myself, of our world) while still making my ideas clear. So please, let me know your thoughts, reactions, criticisms, ideas.

And when a teacher wants to tell you a story, listen.