A Teachable Moment: Why Dissing Students on Your Blog Isn’t a Good Idea

In at least one case, it looks like the teacher is the one getting the tough lesson.

Natalie Munroe (seen at right), a teacher in a school in suburban Philadelphia, was suspended last week when her students (and subsequently her principal) found her blog. Of course, this was no ordinary blog:

“My students are out of control,” Munroe, who has taught 10th, 11th and 12th grades, wrote in one post. “They are rude, disengaged, lazy whiners. They curse, discuss drugs, talk back, argue for grades, complain about everything, fancy themselves entitled to whatever they desire, and are just generally annoying.”

Munroe did not use her full name or identify her students or school in the blog, which she started in August 2009 for friends and family. Last week, she said, students brought it to the attention of the school, which suspended her with pay.

As many in HR know, suspended with pay is only a step or two away from termination. What happened here and what’s the lesson?

A blog that is mostly innocuous

I was able to pull up Munroe’s original blog via Google cache (available as of this writing) and most of the 80 plus posts she did. Her blog now has a single post about her suspension and the resulting fracas.

As I went through about half of the posts and glanced through the content, most of it was pretty tame and, with all due respect to Munroe, fairly boring. I imagine it would be interesting consumption for somebody who knows her, but it definitely wasn’t intended for that wide of an audience. Talking about the new Olive Garden in the neighborhood, celebrity gossip, and pregnancy probably isn’t in my target demographic anyway.

But, there are some things that definitely relate to work. Here’s one quote from June 2010:

3 of those are half days (2 days of finals and graduation day); 1 of them is a full day without students (thanks a lot to central admin for making us go in when the students are done the preceding Friday. ASSHOLES.)

Or this from September 2009:

My colleagues didn’t seem refreshed in the least. The way they were acting, one would think we were returning from a weekend off instead of a summer. They were even complaining about the same stuff they’d been complaining about back in June! It was disheartening to hear.

And this from October 2009:

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My students were particularly hateful this week, annoying me with their attitudes, their sense of entitlement, and their know-it-all behaviors. They gave attitude at everything, complained to guidance about their papers (like, I’m sorry, but what is guidance going to do?), had their parents write emails about their papers, whined about assignments…. everything. It was disgusting and unacceptable and made me irate and frustrated.

But I had to search for this stuff through several pages of ordinary posts. Make the judgement yourself, but most of what I found wasn’t related to work at all.

Does any of that matter?

This is why I dislike blanket social media policies. Now if this were a blog completely devoted to mocking underachieving students, that might be one thing (I’m still not sure where I would stand on that). But looking at the content of Munroe’s blog, it just seems pretty minor as is.

The whole reason any of this gets national attention is because a few students and parents wanted to highlight the fact that their teacher thought they were insufferable at times and posted about it occasionally (along with items about Sandra Bullock or the Food Network)? Many of the teachers I know have had similar frustrations and it seems like posting about them appropriately (without identifying your students or yourself) should be an option.

Should Munroe have thought more about posting about work? Certainly. I think anyone who writes about work without the explicit blessing of their employer should be thoughtful about what they post. Still, I think the punishment should fit the crime, and in this case, the infraction seems minor but the punishment seems major.

The PR aspect matters, too

The other problem is that this case now has a microscope on it and any of the related actions are going to be magnified. If the school district feels pressured to act one way or another because of the spotlight and example it could set, that could lead to some unintended consequences. Similarly, if Munroe does lose her job due to her blog, it will be interesting to see if the PR boost could help launch her own blog, or, another career (similar to dooce.com even though the author there warns to not blog about work unless you have permission).

What do you think about this case? How should the school district react?

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.