Ex-teacher learns the hard way: Watch what you put online
By Dan Hardy
Inquirer Staff Writer
Elizabeth Collins has blogged for more than two years about her personal life and experiences as a teacher.
One Saturday in February, she posted her thoughts about a student's presentation in her English class at the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur, an all-girls private school in Villanova. She criticized its tone and political outlook.
The student's parents took quick exception to that post, telling the school that even though the blog did not identify their daughter by name, it was aimed at her and was an "attack on a child."
The exchange triggered a chain of events that ended with the academy's dismissing Collins in late April. "You have demonstrated a willingness to engage in inflammatory actions and have made a problematic situation worse," her termination letter said.
Collins said she merely used the incident to make a point about teaching methods, but ended up being singled out for her political views.
"I did nothing wrong at any time," she wrote to the school, defending her actions.
The situation illustrates the potential pitfalls of education blogging. When teachers write about their jobs, personal narrative can collide with expectations of student privacy.
Collins says her posts never identify her school or anyone from it, though she does give her name and occupation. That day she wrote about a recent classroom assignment in which each student was to give a speech that advocated a point of view but did so in a conciliatory manner. She had told her students to use Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address as a model, she wrote.
"One thing I told my students is not to gloat, not to strike a hostile tone in their speeches," she wrote on prettyfreaky.blogspot.com. "Then, of course, I heard a speech that did both of those things."
Collins added that she felt "annoyance" because she disagreed with the politics of the speech and "dismay" that her message about the right tone was not getting through.
(Though she never said so on her blog, in an interview Collins said that the student had given a speech about "Obama's lies." She provided The Inquirer with copies of documents from the school and the family about the events leading to her firing, and her responses.)
In Collins' post, she responded to the speech by writing one of her own, saying she was "modeling" the correct approach to the assignment. Her piece encouraged students to move "beyond knee-jerk joining of their parents' political party, and not become one-issue voters, to open their minds and consider the ramifications of their votes."
The essay criticized many George W. Bush administration policies and defended the Obama administration.
The next day, Collins received an e-mail from the student's parents, James J. White IV and Megan White. Saying there "may be some mix-up with the tone of your blog and the actual class that you are teaching," they requested a conference and asked, "If this had been an overly liberal paper, would our daughter have been the subject of your blog?"
Their e-mail also questioned two previous, unrelated incidents in Collins' class. "Earlier in the year, we did let the comment go about marriage and the taking of your husband's last name," though it was an "unnecessary comment to make to the girls and had little or nothing to do with English," it said. "Later, we were all exposed to your very strong feelings about the health-care proposal. . . . Another platform that neither of us felt was necessary for the classroom."
Collins said in an interview that she had told her students why she had kept her maiden name after they asked, and added, "I just feel like health-care reform is such an innocuous issue - it's not abortion."
Collins responded to the Whites by e-mail that afternoon, saying she would take down the post but adding that their e-mail "feels to me like an overreaction, and I am very upset about it." She ended by saying, "I will have my lawyer present for any future meeting."
The Whites contacted the school that evening, calling the blog an "attack on a child" and asking, "Are we to believe that Academy of Notre Dame provides a safe environment for young girls to express their views?"
Things got worse from there.
In a Feb. 24 posting, Collins wrote about unfounded accusations that teachers can face. Referring to the Whites' e-mail - without naming names or spelling out the context - she added, "I realized I was dealing with some hard-core provincialism - not to mention intolerance of anything but ultraconservative views."