The times, they are a-changin’

Part of the issue when it comes to bashing teachers is that those who are doing the bashing aren’t actually in the industry. Yes, I know, this isn’t a real “a-ha” type of statement, but it’s really what it boils down to. Those who are making the claims, and in some cases who are also driving decisions that affect education, haven’t stepped inside a school or a classroom for quite some time. I’m here to tell you that today’s school environment is very, very different than the often romanticized view that many still maintain.

Think back to your elementary school years. Typically, we have fond memories of these years. Learning was fun, we loved to go. We didn’t wake up dreading the experience, we looked forward to it. We didn’t question why we were doing what we were doing, we did it and learned in the process.

Now think back to your junior high/middle school years. This is where things started to change. Typically, we had more freedoms (elective classes) and moved around to a new subject every 45 minutes or so. Our bodies were changing and so were our attitudes about school. It became much more social. Seeing members of the opposite sex (and for some, the same sex) became our top priority, not learning about x’s and y’s and gerunds and participles. We discovered love, but really didn’t know what it was. We began questioning things, but typically these questions were unspoken.

Moving on, let’s get to our high school years. Changes continued. We suddenly knew everything and nobody could tell us anything contrary to this. We pushed the limits. We got our driver’s license, got a job and thought even more about love and that girlfriend or boyfriend. We experimented with all of these things, did things we shouldn’t have done and all along thought we were right. All the while our teachers worked to wrangle us in and actually teach. We sat and we got. (My dad had this theory: the job of the junior high was to pump our heads full of hot air; the job of the high school was to get it back out of there). And then we moved on.

I’d actually be willing to say that those descriptions are pretty similar for most of us. In fact, on a small scale, they also apply to today’s students. But there is one big, HUGE, exception. The lack of respect that students have today for anything beyond themselves is absolutely, positively dumbfounding. These students have been told from the very beginning that they can do no wrong. (Enter Natalie Munroe-like comments here at your own risk). And this is where the problem ultimately lies, in my opinion.

If you haven’t been in an elementary, middle or high school in the past 10 years, then you truly have absolutely no clue of the current conditions. I can’t even begin to put into words just how much this lack of respect has increased over the life of my career. You would be shocked to see how some of our students speak and act on a daily basis. And while the vast majority are absolutely awesome to work with, it’s this vocal minority that ends up taking up the time and attention of those in control.

I’ve often said that there are few students who had more fun while in school than I did. And I was certainly no angel. At the same time, I would have acted much worse if it weren’t for one thing and one thing only: a healthy fear of what my dad would do to me at home. This fear, for the most part, no longer exists amongst our students. As just a short aside, in 9th grade I faced a choice from my Assistant Principal – a paddling or a detention. After finding out that taking the detention brought with it a call home while the paddling did not, the decision was easy. Avoiding that call home made those smacks worth it.

Keep in mind that I work in a pretty darn good school district, and, for the most part, some absolutely incredible students. This being said, we all must take responsibility and be held accountable – and this includes the parents who don’t want to parent, but rather be friends. We live in a feel good society and we need to toughen up. As teachers and as a district – heck as a system in general nationwide, we need to toughen up. We need to become realists, not everyone is great. Not everyone is going to end up on Jeopardy! competing against Watson (or creating Watson! for that matter). Some of us are going to fail; some of us are going to succeed. Such is life.

Effort creates ability is a tag phrase that’s been used in my district for the past 10 years at least. I couldn’t agree with this statement more, but there’s something inherent in this statement that gets lost on many of our parents and students today, the idea that effort is necessary. It takes a strong effort to learn. It takes a strong effort to get better every day. It takes a strong effort to say, you know what, I’m not that good at chemistry, but I’ve been working at it and I’m getting better at it, so maybe if I work even harder, I’ll do even better. It takes a strong parent to demand excellence and instill in our students a desire to get better in everything we do.

On our end, we need to raise the bar. We need to stand up and demand more of our parents, our students, and, most importantly, ourselves. WE need to get past this adversarial relationship that so many have these days, come together and then figure out a way to get our students back to the top, where they need to be. Make no mistake about it, though, there’s no shortcut to achieving this. No KIPP school or TfA teacher or charter school is going to achieve this without an extremely diligent group of concerned people working their butts off to make it happen. We need to move past the idea that we can teach the same way we did in the 50’s, 80’s, 90’s or whatever we’re referring to the first 10 years of this century as. We need to realize that the landscape of our environment is very different, we need to adapt and we need to do everything we can to accept it and excel in this environment. It’s an exciting time, make no mistake about it.

As teachers, we need to value the input of both our students and their parents in this process; reciprocally, this must also be true. Our society must learn to value those who are going out of their way to try to make our society’s children better on a daily basis. Teachers in foreign countries are treated with respect; we deserve this as well in our own country.  Our priorities are all out of whack.

On a different note, dropping $100 million into the Newark school system so that you can hand pick a system that you THINK will work is not only against the state’s laws, but just doesn’t make a lot of sense, either. But because Mark Zuckerberg owns a gazillion dollar company, we take that money and give him a voice – even when that voice doesn’t make much sense. Keep in mind that Newark is currently spending $22,000 per student per year. Think about that number – it’s just absurd. And, just in case you were wondering, they are graduating a whopping (roughly) 50% of its students. You read that correctly. Obviously, throwing a ton of money at them is not the answer.

Turning our schools around is more of a philosophical problem than it is a monetary problem. Don’t get me wrong, well-spent money can certainly help the problems, but we need to get on the same page philosophically before any improvement will ever truly occur.