Why I Blog AnonymouslyMay 27, 2013
If the TES’s Behaviour Guru Tom Bennett is Yoda, then the Emperor must be Sue Cowley. Whereas Tom brings only enlightenment and mastery of the ways of the Jedi knight, Sue will advise young padawans to pretend to eat dogfood, or bribe their enemies with free time on the computer, and otherwise lead them to the dark side of the force.
For some reason, saying this sort of thing hasn’t made her my biggest fan so I found myself wondering whether her recent blogpost (quoted below) on why anonymous bloggers are little better than Goebbels, might have, to some degree, been inspired by me.
Then there are the blogs that I read that are written by anonymous bloggers, quite a few of which use anecdotal examples to make a political point. And herein, for me, lies a problem. As a writer, I know that hyperbole and exaggeration are very tempting. To paraphrase Michael Gove, these writing styles are the ‘enemies of honesty’. In teaching it’s awfully easy to take your own experiences, to describe what happened in, shall we say, an over dramatic way, and then to extrapolate from that to state that this is how it looks in every school.
She only identifies one target clearly, and that’s Red or Green Pen (for pity’s sake) who she alludes to in the comments. For this reason, one tends to assume that we are all equally under suspicion of extrapolating from a few hundred incidents of poor behaviour from our own unreliable direct experience into the sort of general behaviour problem you hear about when you do large scale surveys of teachers. This objection to anonymity and attempts to share real-life experiences is not an uncommon complaint. I have repeatedly heard it from Behaviour Crisis denialists; people who make living from blaming teachers for behaviour problems caused by poor SMT, and from those who find it inconvenient to admit that lots of teachers disagree with their political views. In fact. it’s not even the worst recent example. This comment recently appeared on the website of the Local Schools Network, who are known for their sane and rational contributions to educational discourse:
I suspect you are aware of whom Mr Gove refers to when he says ‘a very informative voice in the education debate’. As the creator of the blog, that exposed the Mr Men history lesson, writes under a pseudonym we will never know whether he is actually a real educationalist or someone in the Gove camp. The Chinese call them the ‘fifty cent-ers’ – bloggers paid 50 cents to post Communist party propaganda on the internet.
This was followed by a reference to a blogpost written by
Andrew Old (a pseudonyn) [sic] whom Mr Gove has paid homage to several times over the past month – despite Mr Old being a labour supporter (before anyone takes umbrage I ‘say’ that with my tongue firmly in my cheek).
The accusation that I am pretending to be a teacher or a Labour supporter (presumably for the glamour and glory associated with those positions) is so absurd that it is probably best met with satire, and I have done my best here to parody those who are most desperate to doubt what I say. However, I think it is probably best to make it 100% clear why I chose to be anonymous.
1) So I could talk about behaviour without kids being identifiable. Some of the non-anonymous bloggers end up making the things they write less accurate in order to preserve the anonymity of the children involved. I have never blogged about my current school, in fact the most recent work-based anecdote on my blog was from a supply position almost 3 years ago, but originally I was blogging in part to try to relate what happened in schools about behaviour and anonymity (along with other precautions) helped me talk about kids without any risk that they could be identified.
2) So I didn’t get sacked or struck off. Usually using point 1 as a justification, teachers who have revealed what goes on in schools have tended to end up in trouble. See Katharine Birbalsingh , Angela Mason and Alex Dolan.
3) So I didn’t get it in the neck at work. Before I got the hang of this anonymous blogging thing, I once spoke to an educational reporter for a national periodical suggesting behaviour was an issue in schools (but with no specific examples given). The report gave enough of my real name to identify me if you knew me personally (but not enough for parents of kids I teach to pick up on). It didn’t mention the school; it only gave enough information to narrow it down to about 5 dozen possible secondary schools. The very next day the head came to see me. He’d spent the morning on the phone with headteachers from those other schools who had been concerned to identify the culprit.
4) So I didn’t get stalked. For some reason some people get obsessed with bloggers. If you blog under your real name you can get some really weird attention, often for no discernible reason. One contributor to a teaching forum told me that they’d had an unstable person they’d encountered online phone up their school and make bizarre accusations to their headteacher. Some real horror stories exist out there and, if you are going to say anything controversial, anonymity may be safer.
5) Because some opinions are bad for your career and job security. In the current teaching climate, teachers are likely to be observed by OFSTED inspectors or SMT who believe that teacher talk is bad, that lessons should be fun and that encouraging kids to talk is better than getting them to work quietly. While they can’t be watching you all the time, publicly attaching your name to something disagreeing with this orthodoxy could make you a target of extra scrutiny. Not surprisingly, many of those who complain about anonymous bloggers are those who would be first to promote that orthodoxy.
6) There is a culture of denialism in education, which, in the first instance is enforced by persecuting those who speak out. I have seen teachers who spoke out in the media attacked at quite a personal level, including being denounced in the press by former colleagues and having details of their past dug up. There’s been no shortage of hatred aimed at me over the years, and I’m not sure I am the sort of person who would easily cope with such treatment if it was aimed at me in real-life rather than my online persona.
7) If you speak up you will be personally blamed for the problems you report or attacked as an idiot or madman for mentioning them. Back when I was blogging regularly about behaviour, I would frequently be told that the problems I described must be my own fault (amusingly in some cases where I was actually describing somebody else’s experiences). When I was discussing controlled assessment in schools during the GCSE English farrago, I would often be told that if I knew cheating was going on then I was to blame if I hadn’t immediately reported it to the authorities. Whenever I dare suggest that a particular teaching method doesn’t work I am told that I must be too incompetent to have used it correctly. Anonymity takes the sting out of a lot of the accusations and insults hurled around. Before I came out as a Labour supporter, the people who told me I should be ignored for being a Tory were always amusing. When people tell me I can’t possibly comment on the teaching of their subject and it’s actually my subject too, or they tell me I don’t understand a particular issue in education and it’s actually something I studied at postgraduate level, I know they are bluffing. Anonymity also provides a deterrent to those who would attempt to bluff, frequently people try to find out what I teach before they try to convince me of some outrageous claim about their own subject. In this respect anonymity keeps debate a bit honest and gives less scope to base it on personal authority or personal attacks (like comparing people to villains from Star Wars).
I am very impressed by those bloggers who do manage to blog under their own name, but it is no exaggeration to say that it is a frequent occurrence for me to be told things, in person or over the internet, by these bloggers which they are unable to say in public. One in particular sends me the most wonderful articles every few months with an accompanying note saying “please don’t show this to anybody”. There is no denying that there are consequences for speaking in public about what goes on in our schools and for taking sides against those unelected people with power and influence in the system. I know some of the people mentioned alongside me in Gove’s speeches became concerned that being praised by the Secretary of State could harm them professionally and I know people who are incredibly outspoken who have refused to say anything on the record about some topics in teaching.
If people don’t want teachers to blog anonymously there has to be a change of culture in education not a change on the part of the bloggers. Proper professional debate needs to be permitted and we are far from that position now. It amused me that some of the very people who described Gove’s Mr Men speech as a personal attack on the designer of the Mr Man resource (whom he has not named in anything I have seen or read) are also the same people who have criticised anonymous bloggers. If they considered the debate in the Mr Men case to be too “personal”, why do they want debate over what we say in blogs to be equally personal? Ultimately, I think there are those who simply do not want to debate the issues and merely wish to divide the world into goodies and baddies and anonymous bloggers make them uncomfortable because they cannot always find precise grounds to declare them to be bad.