Blogs give readers a firsthand look into the sometimes messy world of teaching
By Eddy Ramírez
Posted September 19, 2008 [online @http://www.usnews.com]
When he started his blog, Teaching in the 408, language arts teacher Kilian Betlach tried at first to remain anonymous. He identified himself only as "TMAO," and he withheld all names, including those of his students and his school. But it didn't take long for teachers and administrators in his district in San Jose, Calif., to stumble onto his blog and realize he was the author. "Just discovered your blog," one teacher wrote in response to a post in which Betlach went off on a school official who had spoken during a gathering. "I think I was sitting in front of you at this assembly," the teacher said. Betlach replied that "bridging the electronic divide is a little spooky."
Although generally dismissed by school administrators as "faculty bathroom graffiti," teacher blogs, including those that are written anonymously, are becoming essential reading for anyone who wants to look beyond standardized test score reports to see what's really going on in schools. These blogs "raise important issues and give the rest of us a peek into a world that we see and hear about very rarely or only anecdotally through the media," says Alexander Russo, a former parochial school teacher who has written about the education blogging community. Many of the readers are other teachers, elected officials, and education policy wonks. But parents and students also surf the Internet for blogs written by faculty at their schools.
It's difficult to say how many teachers maintain a blog. Technorati.com, a blog-tracking site, counts 6,046 blogs with teacher "tags," though that doesn't necessarily mean a teacher is behind each one of those. If done well, blogs can shape public opinion and, in some cases, galvanize people to action.
But there also are risks involved, and teachers can pay a price if they cross the line. In 2006, a Chicago public school teacher resigned after a heated controversy over blog entries some students and teachers said were racially insensitive. The blog, called Fast Times at Regnef High, described the school's mostly black students as "criminals" who stole from teachers, smoked pot in the hallways, and had sex in the stairwells. Still, his blog started a conversation about the school's problems that eventually led the district to make some improvements, including allocating more money to revamp the school's curriculum.
Exercising caution. Free speech protects teachers who want to blog about matters of public concern, says David Hudson, a First Amendment scholar. But courts have ruled that schools can discipline teachers if their speech, including online postings, disrupts school operations. School officials in Florida, Ohio, and Tennessee have removed or suspended teachers for online postings on social networking sites like MySpace. Teacher unions have also warned members to use caution if they blog.
Betlach says he's never faced disciplinary action for anything he's written. He says he felt overwhelmed by his job teaching seventh-graders with limited English skills at one of the lowest-achieving schools in his district. Instead of venting by commiserating with colleagues in the teachers' lounge, he created the blog. He mostly used his blog to offer his take on education policy—for instance, lampooning unions for resisting performance-based pay for teachers even though he was a union representative himself.
But he acknowledges that it's difficult to know where the line is when writing a blog about work. For example, early on, Betlach wrote an entry titled, "Everything Hurts," in which he described drinking so much one weekend night that he couldn't bring himself to grade his students' papers the next day. "With blogging comes responsibility, and it's hard," he says.
Bill Ferriter, a sixth-grade teacher at Salem Middle School in North Carolina who blogs about his job, describes the teacher's blog as "the great equalizer." He says blogs make it easier for teachers to exchange ideas and influence policy decisions.
Ferriter spends up to four hours each week blogging and an hour each morning trolling different education blogs for best teaching practices. In his blog, The Tempered Radical, he often writes about using the Internet to boost student learning. He counts a state education board member with similar ideas as a loyal reader. "I've learned how to represent the challenges of teaching in a way that has resonance but that doesn't necessarily turn policymakers off," Ferriter says. "I don't want to burn any bridges."
Like Ferriter, Jeff Silva-Brown finds blogging to be a powerful tool to improve instruction. A social science teacher at a rural high school in Ukiah, Calif., the 35-year-old says he has learned more about classroom management and lesson planning from other bloggers than from his school district colleagues.
Angry parent. But Silva-Brown also has no qualms about airing the frustrations of teaching in a challenging environment. In his blog, called A Passion for Teaching and Opinions, he often takes swipes at government officials who, in his view, are not doing enough to keep his high school free of drugs. Describing his introduction to "the drug culture" of his town, which is allowed to cultivate marijuana for medicinal use, Silva-Brown wrote, "I've had plenty of Intro level students state that they didn't even need to bother going to college, or even graduating high school, because they would help the family grow [marijuana]." He added, sarcastically, "I wonder if [the No Child Left Behind Act] has provisions about that."
Silva-Brown says he's toned down the language in his blog since he was called into the principal's office after a parent complained that his use of profanity was setting a bad example for students. He doubts that many students even read his blog; he says they probably find the content boring.
And that's fine by him. "I'm not writing my blog to gain fame and fortune," he says. "While I think that my blog posts have made people think, they really haven't impacted any sort of change in our community."
Betlach, who originally set out to offer a counternarrative of teaching in an urban school with his blog, wasn't sure if his writings had any impact. When he announced this summer that he was resigning after six years of teaching, some readers responded that they saw his departure coming. But a young teacher who, like Betlach, is a Teach for America graduate, paid him perhaps the biggest compliment of all: "Reading your reflections this year has helped me through the first year of TFA. Whether they're of the cheerleading or ranting variety, they've kept me motivated to try harder. Do better for my kids."