This Time, It's Personal
|Weblogs are the Internet's faculty rooms, providing teachers with places to inspire, commmiserate, and stir things up.|
When another teacher walked into the classroom and abruptly told Jeanne Edna Thelwell that she needed to see the principal, Thelwell knew something was wrong. By the time the first-year teacher got to the office, sat down, and was told to wait for her union rep to arrive, she was, as she puts it, "freaked."
It wasn't Thelwell's first visit to the principal's office. Just weeks before, she had been called to task for asking an unruly bunch of her 4th grade students, in overly precise terms, just what the hell they thought they were doing.
"Is this a disciplinary hearing?" she asked.
"It's come to my attention that you have a Web site," the principal told her. Before Thelwell could reply, she continued: "Which is your right." After some dancing around the issue, the administrator came right out and asked, was Thelwell feeling suicidal? Then Thelwell noticed paperwork on the table stating the purpose of the meeting: Assessing the teacher's emotional state.
"I wanted to laugh," Thelwell recalls. But really, she says, after a bruising first few months at Brooklyn's PS 81, she was on the verge of tears, wondering if she could do anything to stay out of trouble. More to the point, she was wondering what she could have posted online to make the principal think she was on the verge of a breakdown. Then she remembered her entry for October 6, her 52nd birthday:
As birthdays go, today truly sucked. Then again, as ordinary days go, today truly sucked. I woke up with that desire to crawl into a hole and never come out. After this past week, I think I've made a terrible mistake. I have no idea how to teach these kids, and I'm not sure I ever will. They don't like me (which isn't the most important thing in the world), they don't respect me (which is important), and I can't control them—which means I can't teach them. Realizing on your 52nd birthday that you're not competent to do what you've just banked the rest of your career on is not uplifting.
Thelwell went on to detail a week during which she'd not only been sick but was also the subject of a formal disciplinary hearing involving the aforementioned use of the word "hell." Add to that a classroom evaluation, followed by a frustrating meeting with her mentor, a parent- teacher conference, a school visit by a district superintendent, and a fellow teacher shouting at her in front of her class, and it's hardly surprising that she ended her litany of woes with this comment: "Friday night, I was nearly suicidal."
It's the kind of hyperbole you'd find in the private journal of almost any first-year teacher, or in a hazy-eyed memoir looking back on a long and rewarding career. Instead, Thelwell posts these brutally honest insights on her weblog, an easily updated, journal-like personal Web site. Unlike a memoir, though, her tales of bureaucratic screw-ups, difficult children, and the passage of days and weeks taking their toll on an inexperienced teacher are told in real time, without the distance—or safety—of reflection.
"With a weblog...I'm conscious I'm writing for strangers," Thelwell says. "In education, you teach people how to think about doing things. Well, writing for an audience is one of the most metacognitive things you can do—why don't I want to say that, write about this?...It helps me identify what's happening to me."
From the intimate to the inane, people have posted personal accounts to the Internet for as long as there's been an Internet. But the explosion of weblogging, or "blogging," as it's called, has greatly simplified the process. No longer does a geek with a love of, say, Star Trek fan fiction need to spend weeks poring through HTML manuals, buying software, and building a Web site to share his passion with the world. With the emergence of sites such as Blogger, Movable Type, and LiveJournal, among others, posting to the Web is as simple as typing text into a box and pushing a button.
It's easy, it's free, and it's gotten a lot of attention—at least in some circles. Politically minded blogs, essentially the musings of armchair pundits whose powers of perception range from astute to subliterate, credit themselves with everything from furthering pet causes to the emergence of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. Anonymous bloggers in Iraq and Iran have offered idiosyncratic glimpses into their countries, as have similar sites created by U.S. soldiers garrisoned in hotspots from Kabul to Tikrit. These sites draw the most eyeballs, but the majority of blogs are personal journals, and many degenerate into solipsistic, random exercises in navel-gazing. That the term "blogging" sounds vaguely like an intestinal condition, while unintended, seems aptly appropriate.
Educators who blog are few and far between, but interest is growing. There's even a loosely organized Educational Bloggers Network, which claims 120 members and which will hold its first convention in San Francisco this November. Some teachers are starting to use blogs as tools for their students' written projects, to collaborate with each other on curriculum or professional development issues, or simply to "talk, share, and support," says Pam Pritchard, an Ohio elementary reading specialist who maintains Edublog News, a site devoted to educator weblogs. Unlike their more general counterparts, many teaching blogs are thoughtful and insightful, written with an immediacy that provides a unique view of the profession, and for their efforts, their authors say they receive encouragement to push through difficult times. But not everything on the Internet is always as it seems, and not every education-related blog puts the profession's best face forward.
Few first-year teachers would be willing to admit to the world just how overwhelmed they often feel. Then again, Thelwell is hardly a typical first-year teacher.
After more than 20 years as a lawyer, many of them representing clients like IBM and the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling for a Wall Street firm, she felt burned out. So she spent a few years doing Net-related jobs with a magazine publisher, where she saw an ad for the New York City Teaching Fellows program, an alternative route to certification for professionals in other fields. In December 2001, she was accepted, and Thelwell, who had never posted a word to a weblog, created a site at www.thelwell.org to chronicle her experiences. Her initial rationale was that the site would help keep informed her far-flung friends, many of whom she had met while playing games and chatting online, once she fell into the "black hole" of the program's all-consuming combination of class work, training, and job placement.
Not every education-related blog puts the profession's best face forward.
Almost immediately, her job search provided ample fodder for her writings, as she applied for positions at several different schools, ultimately accepting an offer from one only to find out months later that she had actually been assigned to another. Once the school year began, at night and on weekends, she detailed in no uncertain terms the frustration of trying to maintain order in what the Fellows program euphemistically calls a "difficult to staff" school. At least twice, she posted missives admitting she was ready to give up, and at other times, she simply didn't post at all. They were "periods of exhaustion," she recalls. "I didn't want to relive these parts of the year while I was living them."
Were Thelwell not sharing these experiences online, you'd never guess she ever had doubts about teaching. In person, dressed casually and wearing her hair in tight cornrows, she speaks matter-of-factly with the quiet certainty of a trial attorney, sharing both trying experiences and her general philosophy of education with equal candor. As she begins her second year at PS 81, not only is she sure of her decision to teach, she has a 10-year career plan mapped out—and she's continuing to blog. True to her principal's word, she's experienced no repercussions at work over the site, though Thelwell acknowledges she's heard vague grumblings that certain comments got back to colleagues. But she makes no apologies.
"I didn't really care because I had set some limits," she explains. Her rules for the site: Never relay things said in confidence, identify students, or speculate beyond personal experiences. "I went into this as a lawyer," she says. "I'm not being defamatory or contributing to disruption in my workplace. This is my right."
While Thelwell's frank assessment of her frustrations led to the surreal meeting with PS 81's principal last October, it also generated e- mails of encouragement from friends and strangers alike, who urged her not to give up on teaching. After thinking long and hard about how much she wants to share online, Thelwell argues that instead of making her vulnerable, broadcasting her emotions has given her a sense of clarity. "It's easiest to be manipulated when you don't know how you feel," she says. "Putting it out there has made me much more honest with myself."
For Thelwell, blogging wound up becoming a much-needed way to sort through a tortuous first year. For Christopher Wright, a tall, affable Midwesterner who towers over the other 3rd grade teachers at Wyman Elementary School in Rolla, Missouri, it's primarily a way to share stories about his school, his kids, and himself.
"I hate journaling," he says. "I wanted a place where I could share the funny stories."
Wright is exactly the kind of teacher you'd expect to keep a blog on the side. The25-year-old does Web consulting in his spare time and, in the classroom, has his kids work with handheld Palm computers tethered to keyboards. While he admits he's not completely easygoing, he allows his classes to have fun. "There's lots of laughter," he says.
|For Thelwell, blogging wound up becoming a much needed way to sort through a tortuous first year.|
He started blogging in March 2001, when several mentoring teachers encouraged him to start a journal. Uninspired by the thought of writing something that would go unread, he instead started www.whatintarnation.net. "I got turned on by the interactivity," he recalls, as other teachers began e-mailing the then-novice, who seemed alternately amused and flustered by his rambunctious students. "It seems whatever I was experiencing, someone else had recently experienced."
He's told only a few of his co-workers about the site, and few others have stumbled across it. The exceptions are the school's librarians, who have a well-documented—at least in his blog—knack of offering Wright and his students films and books about animals' reproductive habits that he finds almost too embarrassing to explain. He good-naturedly joked about how they were conspiring to make his life difficult, and then showed the site to them. "If I write about someone I work with, I tell them," he says. (He also lets readers in on an end- of-the-year tradition at his school, which involves retiring teachers, a long hallway, and a cart decorated with streamers.)
While Wright's blog is mostly lighthearted, it does delve into more serious subjects. He writes openly about his religious convictions, including a cherished moment on National Prayer Day, during which several colleagues invited him outside to participate in a spontaneous prayer. "We were standing around the flagpole, right next to where the kids are getting off the bus and parents are dropping off kids," he writes. "It was a wonderful surprise, and I needed it to make it through the day." When budget cuts became a serious issue in his district, Wright spent considerable time worrying about their effects. Along with e-mails of encouragement, he heard from a non-educator critical of his attitude; the two exchanged e-mails and points of view. Later in the year, he received a different perspective on the perennial problem:
Today my class had a school day from the past. We put away the handheld computers and headed out to an old one-room schoolhouse....There were several guest speakers who were educated in a one-room schoolhouse. One of my favorite stories was about how the school would raise money. One method was the pie supper. The older girls in the school would make a pie and wrap it up in a box. The older boys in the school would bring money and bid on the boxes, not knowing which girl made which pie. The boy with the winning bid would get to eat the pie with the girl. A similar fundraiser was the prettiest girl in school. Boys would nominate a girl and then vote with their money. The girl with the most money would win the title of prettiest of the whole school. Something tells me that these fundraisers wouldn't go over well now.
One other story gave me goose bumps. One of the guest speakers commented that one year, his mother who was the teacher had 64 students in a room smaller than most modern classrooms, students were in grades 1 through 8, and no A/C. When I get worried about budget cuts, I need to remember it could always be worse.
The site's "been a good place for me to vent," Wright says, but more important, "to vent with people who understand where I'm coming from."
On the Internet, a cartoonist once famously opined, nobody knows if you're a dog. Nor, it turns out, does anyone know if you're a special education teacher.
Case in point: the Tard Blog, found at www.tardblog.com. As its name suggests, the site details—or at least purports to detail—the classroom experiences of a special education teacher who goes by the pseudonym Riti Sped (like "tard," "riti," a reference to Ritalin, and "sped," for "special ed," are common, if unflattering, sobriquets). Sped, the site assures visitors, is "a real person, and really teaches mentally retarded and behavior disorder kids in a real public school." Here's a typical account:
Tomorrow, the special ed kids are going on a field trip (walking around the school outside, picking up garbage, and collecting and dumping the recycle bins). We also sing stupid-ass songs that I, as a professional, am too embarrassed to discuss. E.g., "If You're Happy and You Know It" is a favorite.
We have one on the first Friday of each month....Last month, one of my tards actually ran away and hid UNDERNEATH a fucking portable classroom. Unbelievable. It was dirt, trash, rats, and a retard under Portable 12.
On the Internet, nobody knows if your a special education teacher.
I am now going to a Mexican restaurant with my co-workers. Our principal schedules these little staff events and buys everyone their first drink. As luck would have it, the teachers who can't make it authorize me to have their "first drink." I love these events. A bunch of 40-plus-year-olds talking about curriculum, standardized testing, etc, and me, the kid on the staff, talking about all sorts of things that are supposed to be confidential, downing Margaritas like its Cinco de fucking Mayo. I will eat this time though, as the embarrassment of having our speech-language pathologist call a cab for me last time was just too much.
It's not difficult to picture a special education teacher recounting similar stories with colleagues in an unguarded moment, and gallows humor is hardly an uncommon trait in this line of teaching. It's also not difficult to understand why these stories, shared in a far more public forum than a neighborhood watering hole, upset, even enrage, a sizable faction of the teachers, parents, and random surfers who stumble across the site. It's definitely unlike other teachers' sites, which bend over backward to avoid embarrassing students. But the Tard Blog is also hard to miss—it's among the first sites called up when searching for teaching blogs.
"Have some respect for humanity," reads one e-mailed complaint. "You are the people who are avoided in the teachers' room. You may not realize it, but you are." Others are more direct: "Being disabled is only a car wreck away for any of us...hopefully sooner for you. I hope you don't really work with disabled kids, and if you do, I hope you end up in jail for abuse."
In comments posted online, whoever Sped might be claims repeatedly that she loves her students and is only trying to recount what it's like to be a special education teacher. Even the word "tard," she says, was chosen because it's not an actual word, and therefore it's a fitting label for a group of tough-to-label kids. "Like all sped teachers, [she] must find a way to relieve the stress of a very difficult and emotionally trying job," writes Brody Voss, the person—perhaps fictional, perhaps not—who receives Sped's e-mail missives and posts them online, presumably to help shield her identity. "This is her chosen outlet."
As is usually the case when scurrying down an anonymous corner of the Internet, learning more about this outlet quickly becomes a study in futility. The site is registered, as all Internet domains must be, to a real person, one Tucker Max, who lives in Chicago. Max has a Web site of his own, where a few details emerge. First, he's an author—although it's unlikely that The Definitive Book of Pick-Up Lines is required reading in most education classes. (It is, however, ranked 11,007th in Amazon.com's sales rankings.) He's also a law school graduate, which is probably a good thing because, earlier this year, he was taken to court by Katy Johnson, better known as Miss Vermont USA 1999 and 2001, for posting online an unflattering—and graphic—account of their time as a couple. (The case has since been dismissed.) And finally, he's available: The opening page of his personal site consists largely of an online application to date him. Not surprisingly, given the vitriol associated with the site, attempts to contact Max, Sped, and Voss went unanswered; a posting from Voss cited "SERIOUS attempts by some very messed up people to find [Sped]" in the blog's early days.
Is Max the site's author? Others have suggested as much, and his name once appeared prominently in the copyright information at the bottom of each page. But the entries speak to a direct knowledge of special education and include plausible examples of student artwork. Special ed teachers shown the site insist it looks authentic. And this past spring, Sped supposedly decided she was leaving teaching, prompting a search for a replacement, "someone who cares about her students but sees the humor in life and in teaching such a class," according to Voss.
"You need not be Hemingway, you just need to have a good understanding of story and flow and a good sense of humor," he wrote, offering a promise of anonymity to prospective authors. "In fact, it'd be better if we didn't even know your real name or where you are from, as it really isn't that important."
Using the presumed pseudonym "Sarah Hammon," a new teacher has apparently taken Sped's place. Her early entries include "Tard Likes Stretchy Things," "Malcolm's Chair of Death," and "Tard Likes Fire," so perhaps the mantle has been passed. Or perhaps it's all an elaborate game: "There is no need for embellishment or lies in a job such as hers," Voss writes on the site. "Of course, even though I say that, all of this could be invented by me. Who actually knows?"
When the Internet first started becoming popular, naysayers called it the CB radio of the 1990s. Now the nickname seems to have finally found a place to roost, largely because so much of the interest in blogs comes from other bloggers, who incessantly link to each others' sites and reference each others' writing. Borrowing a page from the equally incestuous world of publishing, where authors engage in "logrolling" by penning gushing reviews of each others' work, there's even a term for this behavior— "blogrolling."
|The site's ‘been a good place for me to vent,’ Wright says, but more important,‘to vent with people who understand where I'm coming from.’|
At the same time, this kind of interconnection has been a lifeline for many teachers, who rarely have time during the school day to share either professional or personal matters with colleagues. Few experiences are as isolating as being a first-year teacher in a school full of veterans, and Thelwell and Wright, among others, found in their sites ways to connect with others in the same predicament. Edublog News' Pam Pritchard is even using a blog to help mentor a first-year teacher, fulfilling needs for both formal documentation and informal support. "In my weblogging circle," she says, "I'm able to discuss ideas and share with teachers from all over—New York, Chicago, Georgia, San Francisco, and Canada. When has that ever been afforded to teachers?"
And now, Thelwell has experienced a different sort of blogrolling, thanks to this year's crop of Fellows candidates. During receptions sponsored by the program, she learned that her site had spread from Fellow to Fellow, largely by word of mouth. Since then, she's been exchanging encouraging e- mails with many of this year's group, now wending their way through their own first- year crises. One even told Thelwell that her blog has been to the Fellows what the Judy Blume classic Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret is to adolescents—a universal, yet furtive, glimpse into a new phase of their lives. And speaking of adolescents, consider this: Even if there's no teacher at your school who blogs, chances are there's more than one student out there, typing away.
Vol. 15, Issue 2, Pages 31-33Published in Print: October 1, 2003, as This Time, It's Personal