Viewing the Case of the Blogging Teacher through a Social Systems Lens

The recent case of a blogging high school teacher at the upscale Central Bucks East High School in Southeastern Pennsylvania is an interesting discussion topic with some lessons to be learned. People have a variety of perspectives on this situation, ranging from how dare she? to it’s about time someone said this!

As an alumnus of this high school, a taxpayer in the local community, and the parent of a senior in another high school in the same school district, I can see this from a variety of positions. But the most helpful perspective I can offer is to look at the situation with a social systems lens in order help others learn from this and determine what actions they should take.

The Case

Apparently on her own time as well as during the school day, teacher Natalie Munroe wrote blog posts on a range of topics, including commentary on students and their parents, the school grading system, TV shows, restaurants and her family. When students and their parents (her customers) learned that Ms. Munroe had less than kind things to say about some of them, they shared their opinions about her on Facebook.

On Wednesday, February 9, the high school principal (her boss) suspended her and escorted her from the school building. That same day, local media began reporting on the incident. Then the story went national.

As this situation evolved, Ms Munroe removed all of the content from her blog. Then, over the weekend of February 11, she decided to put a new post on her blog. In part, her blog reads:

“See, what I’d done was written a casual blog. I talked about everything–such exciting topics as our trip to Sesame Place, my favorite (and least favorite) restaurants, my work experiences, the diaper genie. . .”

“When I wrote, I kept things as anonymous as possible; I know there are crazies out there and I didn’t want anyone trying to track me down. I blogged as “Natalie M” and had no location information or email address or anything listed or accessible. Nor did I ever mention where I worked or the names of students. Yet, there’s this perception that I was trying to lambaste everyone in the school without heed. That’s bollocks.”

“What bothers me so much about this situation is that what I wrote is being taken out of context. Of my 84 blogs, 60 of them had absolutely nothing to do with school or work. Of the 24 that mentioned it, only some of them were actually focused on it–others may have mentioned it in passing, like if I was listing things that annoyed me that day and wrote without any elaboration that students were annoying that day.”

Social Systems Lens

In the news, social media and conversations with others in the community, a wide range of actions have been proposed, including (and I will be kind and generic) terminate her employment; applaud her for shaking up students, their parents and school administrators – and for alerting the community to real problems; establish and enforce social media policies; forget about it; use her as an example to students, make her suffer (even more) ridicule, then terminate her.

From a social systems perspective, this case reminds us that our society always has been and always will be a complex, interactive realm that none of us can escape. Teachers – and employees of every organization – are contained within Society as a larger system and are parts of multiple subsystems. We cannot compartmentalize our lives into segments completely walled off and separate from the other aspects of our lives.

From a social systems perspective, the employee must realize that by flipping a switch in her own mind – this is work and this is my personal life – or driving from the school to her home – I’m on duty, now I’m off duty – does not relieve her responsibilities as a member of the school community or the taxpaying community, or the community of educators entrusted with the nurturing of young lives. If one is a part of a social system then others in that system expect her or him to act according to the rules of membership in that system. Period. Regardless of location and regardless of what is going on in his or her own mind.

Today we now live in an era where social media creates the potential to place opinions, ideas and information clearly in the open for all to see. Communication and action transcend the workplace, work hours, and direct supervision by bosses. So we’re dependent on the knowledge, beliefs and values of our culture to guide how we conduct our lives whether or not anyone is supervising us.

Social systems have rules that members must follow or face penalties. In civil society we have rules of conduct, ordinances, regulations, laws, etc., that require us to act in certain ways. Who is responsible for those rules? Ultimately, all of us as members of society are responsible to each other and ourselves through our legislative, judicial and executive processes.

In the case of the school as a social system, the appointed leaders are speaking to say Ms. Munroe’s conduct was not acceptable. The students and their parents – the customers – are saying “not acceptable.” The majority of people in the community are saying “not acceptable.” And I suspect that most peers – teachers – while they may agree with Ms. Munroe to some extent, would say, “not acceptable.”

But have the containing social systems of which Ms. Munroe is part offered her sufficient training, guidance and warning for her to know what is acceptable? American Society today says that airing opinions on blogs, facebook, twitter, or directly with strangers in line in the grocery store is perfectly acceptable – perhaps even encouraged. Students themselves use social media as a free-wheeling exchange where they can learn far more about each other’s lives than anyone of my generation ever knew about our fellow students.

What about community standards among professional teachers? What about the standards that we as taxpayers expect our school administrators to set on our behalf? Has Ms. Munroe crossed a line intentionally or unintentionally?

Is this a failure of one individual to realize the conduct that is expected of her? Or is this a broader failure of the local school district’s elected leaders and administrators to understand the impact of social media on the dynamics of the school social system. Social media is powerful, and potentially positive or negative. Have the school system leaders provided training, guidance and warning to those within the system?

The schools, Ms. Munroe, her lawyer and the courts will ultimately decide the issues here. It will cost taxpayer money and lost potential benefits to students in order to decide these issues. No one wins in this case. And as the saying goes, when stuff hits the fan, everybody gets some on them.

Experience: When We Don’t Get What We Wanted

It’s hard to imagine that anyone wanted this kind of problem to arise in our schools – or that anyone would want to have to deal with issues like this in a business or organization for which he or she is responsible. In this case, we don’t get what we wanted so we get experience and an opportunity to be wiser as we look to the future.

Leaders in businesses and other organizations should ask, “In light of these facts, what training, guidance and warning do I owe to my people so that desired conduct and outcomes are rooted in our organizational culture?”

“How do we ensure that everyone is aware of the responsibilities we owe to each other and how we expect each other to conduct ourselves when situations may reflect on us as a whole and either jeopardize or support our mission?”

“What are the positive opportunities offered by social media as well as the concerns going forward?”

“How do we productively embrace the changes brought by social media?”

For more information on the Blogging Teacher, go to:

Natalie Munroe’s Blog

Coverage from The Daily Intelligencer in Doylestown

Coverage from Doylestown Patch

Coverage by 6ABC in Philadelphia

Coverage by NBC10 in Philadelphia

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