Bloggers Anonymous

As is usual this time of year, I’m dealing with a trying student.  Yesterday, as a cathartic measure, I prepared a post in which I collated our email exchange since the beginning of the semester.  If you are not me, this exchange is no doubt extremely entertaining.  (If you are me, you spent most of yesterday meditating because it’s the only thing that prevented you from wrecking stuff and cursing constantly.)

However, this morning, I’m finding myself reluctant to publish it.

When this blog was being read by only a handful of friends and colleagues and the occasional visitor, I felt fine about posting stories about students, including almost word-for-word dialogue and emails.  I was taking plenty of steps to protect my students’ privacy, including the following:

  • My real name doesn’t appear anywhere on this blog, and I’ve taken strict measures to prevent my real name and my blogonym from being connected to each other anywhere on the internet.
  • I never mention the name of my college.
  • I change all names and identifying features of any students I mention.
  • Although plenty of my friends and colleagues know that I’m the blog’s author, it’s highly unlikely that they would recognize students in any of my stories.  My college is large – even if we’re teaching the same person at the same time, there’s usually no way for a teacher to know that this person is the one I’m referring to in a post.
  • The only people who are likely to recognize a student in a post are a) the student him/herself, or b) other students in the class, if the post describes an event that happens in the classroom.  For this reason, I’ve tried very  hard not to let my students know that I keep this blog, and so far, I think I’ve been successful.  There have been times that it would have been valuable for me to share it with them, but I never have.

Given all of the above, I’d be interested in your thoughts on this matter.  Is it okay for a teacher to tell true, detailed stories about interactions with students if no one is likely to ever know who the students are?  What about publishing emails from students – are these confidential?  (I believe the law concerning letters is that the recipient is the owner.  Is this true for emails?)  Is there a difference between reproducing a brief email and a long exchange?

As this blog gains more exposure, I’ve been trying to be more prudent.  But telling true stories is helpful to me, and seems to be helpful to readers as well.  I miss it.

What’s a teacher blogger to do?

Image by Richard Dudley

36 responses

  1. I know that you want to write authentically and as a fellow teacher I appreciate that and often find resonance in your posts, but I think that if I were you I would be cautious about posting emails from students on your blog. It could come back to bite you. In relation to your other question regarding reports of occurrences, etc. in you blog, I say all’s fair in love and war.

    • Eileen: that is interesting. Is this because reproducing the student’s written word is more traceable than spoken words, for example? Intuitively I totally see where you’re coming from, but from an ethical standpoint, I’m trying to pin down the difference.

      • I don’t see the concern, in either case. As you’ve said, the student is in no way identified, so this exchange will do them no harm in the future even if someone should see it.

        But what I think is actually more important here is “intent,” for lack of a better term. It’s obvious from reading your blog that you care for the students and want them to do well. Any frustrating exchanges posted or described are frustrating to you for that reason. I don’t get a sense of “Look how dumb my students are!”

        I guess what I’m saying, very ineloquently, is that even if the student ever stumbled across an exchange in which they recognized themselves, it might be a positive experience for them to see that their teachers actually struggle with this stuff and care, sometimes far more than they do.

        • HK: I’m glad you see my intentions that way, and that’s certainly how I see them, too. However, I wonder if a student who recognized him/herself in a blog post would share your view. It is often very difficult to see oneself and one’s actions through another’s eyes, and given the level of irrationality teachers sometimes have to deal with, I can certainly imagine a student getting very angry when reading one of our exchanges from my pov. (They certainly get very angry sometimes when I express my pov to them directly!)

  2. I know that we are not even allowed to use student names in emails within our own school board and not email or otherwise publish any personal information (which I believe correspondence may fall into) about other staff or students.

    Here’s the rub: someone you know reads your blog. Someone you know knows where you work. Someone who knows these two things may repost, or repeat in some way what you are considering posting. So it may not really be anonymous.

    I am dying to read about this, but I would suggest you read up on anything your college has provided as guidelines.

    • Paula: the rule about not using student names seems wise to me; I would of course never reveal a student name in a post. As far as I know, my college has no guidelines about blogging, but they may certainly have rules about student confidentiality, which I will investigate.

  3. I hope this isn’t off topic, but I have often read articles on the internet, newspapers, and magazines, by named and often photographed authors, on the topic of how to go on a job interview, and these are typically replete with anecdotes detailing dumb things that interviewees have said and done. Those seem to be legally in the clear, and so your articles which use reported (indirect) speech seem fine and ethical.
    I will be curious to know if your workplace comes through with further input on electronic communication, blogging, and confidentiality.
    I recall recently seeing some comments on Facebook following a Siobhan posting –might have been last week or the week before — and I think one commenter blurted your name. If you catch one, do you just delete it yourself or do you remind the poster to avoid repeating the error?

    • SN: When someone inadvertently mentions my real name in connection with a post, I delete the comment myself if I can – if not, I ask them to do so, and they always comply. I’m not sure I can count on this working forever, though! This is why this topic is so important right now; the only reason I want to preserve my pseudonymity is to protect student privacy (and thus allow myself a bit more freedom to write about specific cases.) Otherwise, I’m not concerned about people knowing who I am.

  4. I think there’s something about the general vs the specific. I would hesitate to publish a student’s specific correspondence, not for fear of them seeing it but because I think there is an implied expectation of some level of privacy in email exchanges between teachers and students, maybe because of the power dynamic and the vulnerability of the student in that dynamic. That. Being said students tend to fall into certain catagories of type. Just look at the FB exchanges between teachers at this time of year and you’d swear we all had the same student. So I think if you share correspondences as an amalgamation
    of your experience instead of a revealing of the details of one experience that becomes less problematic.

  5. I teach college and have followed your interesting blog for most of the past year but without commenting. (I suppose that makes me a lurker. Ugh.) I chime in now because you ask specifically about the legality of posting email messages and compare them to letters.

    A few years ago, I published an essay that quoted from unpublished letters. The libraries who owned the physical letters gave their permission to publish, but the publisher also required that I get permission from the letters’ authors. Apparently, the law distinguishes between the ownership of a physical letter and ownership of that letter’s contents. The physical letter is owned by the recipient or later buyer, but its contents remain the property of their author in perpetuity. As a result, it is the letter-writer who makes all decisions about publication. If the same distinction holds for email, then I suppose that your student might have a right to choose whether anything sent to you is put online, anonymously or not. I don’t know though.

    In any case, you’ve handled these situations carefully in the posts I’ve read, and I think the practical and ethical issues you and others raise are likely more important. Surely, these things wouldn’t come to point of law?

    • This is extremely helpful, especially your distinction between physical letters and their contents – thank you. You’re right – the legal issue here is not my primary concern, but the ethical question is, and sometimes the law can help us sort that out. I’m so glad you chimed in! I love all my readers equally, but commenting readers are a tiny bit more equal than others.

  6. In the UK, Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that you have a right to private correspondence. However, all employers are entitled to monitor your emails. If your employer does want to monitor your emails, they must inform you they intend to do so. Most UK schools would do this through an employment contract or employee handbook, or some other kind of workplace email policy.

    My understanding of US and UK law is that it is essentially foolish for anyone to think emails are in any way really private, but in the case of a school child’s emails there will also be duty of care issues. At least in the UK there would be. Legally, while not bound by parental responsibility, teachers must behave as any reasonable parent would do in promoting the welfare and safety of children in their care. So given that, I’d think it extremely unwise to post anything which contains any direct content, from any pupils’ emails.

      • Although how a “reasonable parent” would behave in the age of the Internet is an interesting one. Wasn’t there an issue a few years ago with a UK journalist who wrote annonymously, but very detailed essays on her experience of being the mother of her son. Kids at her son’s school figured out that the essays were about him. Outrage ensued on a number of fronts if I remember rightly.

  7. I think this is a really interesting dilemma and appreciate that you err to the side of caution when discussing your students. As a university student, I know that my professors are most likely discussing me outside of class (my mother teaches college and talks about her students at home, I assume other teachers do the same), but I would prefer them to keep any discussion relatively private. When I tell my professor something, I generally expect them to keep it at least relatively confidential.

    I think there needs to be a balance struck, detailing general issues is okay, specifics are not. Certain students and their issues will be related to larger, interesting problems that are more than fine to discuss. Things get tricky when particulars are involved. Yet, discussing the problems that arise with teaching shouldn’t always involve particulars.

    Anyhow, I hope you get things sorted out with the student. I’m sure that the process of writing the emails out was helpful, even if you choose not to share them on your blog!

    • Emilia:
      This is all very wise advice. The difficulty comes with finding how to craft interesting stories without revealing specifics. For me the most fascinating thing about interacting with students (or anyone) is the particular ways that person communicates, reacts and so forth. It’s a tricky balance.

  8. Since I am new to blogging, I haven’t thought about the content of my blogs this specifically. I do try to only talk about myself which is one of my favorite things to do, so I don’t worry about privacy of others yet. I teach middle school and have student friends on my Facebook, so they have my link to my blog. I want them to read about my struggles with writing and teaching and living generally. My students are placed into groups so that I can post things that don’t pertain to them if I need to do that. I enjoy reading your blog mainly because I teach writing to 8th graders and find it funny that your experiences parallel mine. I also want to teach writing in community or junior college one day. I don’t know an answer to this dilemma (a word that I totally misspelled in my last blog’s title ;-), but I think that we are the pioneers blazing this trail so there aren’t clear answers yet. I share my blogs with my students, and they have actually helped me to revise them. It would be a tragedy for me to feel that I don’t have the freedom to blog about my professional struggles to be the best teacher that I could be.

    • YvonneEileen:
      I am indeed sad that I don’t feel free to share my blog with my students. Students (not mine) who have read the blog have told me that it’s really valuable to them to learn about education from the other side of the desk. That said, I’m not ready to let go of that barrier yet. Sometimes I just need to vent, and sometimes the details of the problem are important, and students might be able to put the pieces together and figure out who I’m talking about.

  9. I struggle with this issue a lot on my blog as well. I would not want my students to read my blog as it is more personal than anything else, but I do talk specifically about my job as a high school teacher sometimes. I would hope that since I, like you, don’t use my name, school, or any identifying information, that no one would have a problem with my posts, but you never know. I have heard of teacher’s getting in trouble for their blogs. In life I guess, everything is a gamble, but sharing on my blog is my poor girl’s therapy and I need it. I don’t think that sharing snippets from a student’s e-mail is unethical, as long as their is no deep emotional or sentimental information in it. And when students send rude or funny e-mails (intentionally or not) I consider them automatically fair game.

    • TeacherGirl:
      Yes, I remember a couple of news stories about teachers getting in trouble for their blog posts. In those cases, it seemed like the teachers had been truly indiscreet, but the line is a blurry one. And I’ve certainly shared bits of student emails in the past and will continue to do so, but I balked at reproducing a semester-long exchange (even if it was VERY funny, in a painful sort of way…)

  10. I think you are taking reasonable precautions. In my case, when writing about students I additionally change their sex and age and class whenever possible. If a specific conversation is recognizable, perhaps it can be changed slightly to give the intent of the original conversation or letter, yet without using the same words (which makes it less recognizable). After all, what we as teachers are really writing about are feelings and dilemmas which stem from these conversations.

    Lynne Diligent
    Dilemmas of an Expat Tutor

    • Lynne: I also try to change identifying details, but sometimes it’s tough. For example, my college is very ethnically diverse, and I often find it useful to change a student’s name but assign him/her a name that reflects his ethnic background. This has often led to interesting observations by commenters and generally, I think, provides a detail that can illuminate a situation without my needing to do a lot (or any) uninformed speculating about how a student’s cultural background might be influencing the situation.

  11. As an anonymous teacher-blogger, I struggle with the same issues, Siobhan, and have no useful advice for you. (See my mortified post from a few weeks ago–…/)

    I want desperately to write the 100% truth (about my students, their parents, my administration), but I often find myself holding back for fear of (1) legal and/or professional repercussions and (2) hurt feelings, both legit possibilities. Of course, the fact that I sometimes dilute—or even delete—my stories is a bummer, for the truth is so bloody compelling. Erring on the side of caution is probably smarter, but tons less entertaining….

  12. I think you’re doing great and are being responsible to keep everything anonymous. Your posts indeed help and inspire so many of your readers. We don’t need to know which student you’re talking about, what’s your real name or whatever. The most important thing is that you’re being very helpful to us and that you’re enjoying blogging. 🙂 Keep writing dude!

  13. Someone once told me, “Blog globally, praise locally.” I find this advice to be very helpful when I feel I am getting too specific. My blog is followed by many co-teachers but I am thinking about adding my real picture and name soon. So, our situation may be different. Regardless, “Blog Globally Praise Locally” may help with your standpoint.

  14. As a teacher in a public high school, I am thinking that verbatim emails is a bad idea. I think speaking of ssues in broad terms is appropriate, but avoiding specifics is a wise choice.

  15. If its is very important to you to share the stuff may be you can adequately mask the details but the get the essence out in a life-like but fictional narrative. Yes some authentic details may be lost and hopefully nothing which is the very key to the issue at hand.

    If the key facts in your mail exchanges cannot be masked except at the cost of significantly change the issues involved then you may have to forget using this forum for it. In matters of personal ethics, my principle has been, if in doubt, don’t.

    I hope this helps 🙂

    Happy holidays!

  16. I would post it an image of the email but block out the names and any identifiers (i.e. university email addresses).

    Besides, its just you and the student who got the email and the chances of he/she finding this blog I guess is pretty slim. Just my two cents..

    Even if you get “caught”, you didn’t release information that can identify the student.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: