I envy teachers who have been in the same classroom for decades and never quit improving their craft. That's where I saw myself when I began teaching. I was going to be an amazing history teacher and tell wonderful stories that entranced and inspired my students. When I couldn't find a job as a history teacher and ended up teaching everything from preschool to high school government. It's not that I gave up on history, but rather I threw myself into whatever classroom I was in and fell in love with it. Now, we've moved around the country and for various reasons I've come to accept that I will never be that experienced teacher. This was a difficult realization to accept, but I'm slowly seeing God's wisdom and plan for me. I'm embracing my experiences and learning through travel and substitute teaching. My experiences in a variety of classrooms, as well as my broad reading, have given me a perspective on the world of education that is half insider and half outsider. Throughout the 15+ years spent in classrooms, I've observed student behavior and noticed changes brought about by parenting trends and technology.
I'm never one to say that there is only one problem, nor am I attempting to trivialize a situation by suggesting that changing only one thing would fix everything. That said, there are major failings that complicate the work that teachers are trying to do and they hurt students. Today's word relates to something I consider a cancer in the system. Something that is eating at the heart of our schools and drastically damaging it.
Today's Word: Adversarial
Five syllables. Pronounced [ad-ver-ser-ee-ul] Adjective. Defined in the OAD as involving conflict or opposition. One day, while teaching middle school grammar, I mentioned that what we were doing was so repetitive and seemingly a waste of time. They had learned the same material each year from second grade to sixth grade, but we were still covering it because they couldn't remember the rudimentary parts of grammar. A candid student looked at me and with no disrespect intended said, "I try hard to forget everything at the end of each year. It's my goal to remember nothing." O-kay, umm . . . well, there's our problem. That night, haunted by his comment, I thought about the word adversarial. My classroom was an adversarial place. I worked hard to teach them and they worked hard to avoid my work. They were like lawyers carefully studying loopholes in tax laws. They wouldn't commit fraud, but the goal was to pay as little to the system as possible.
The adversarial system is present in three areas. I see this every day in the students when subbing. I assign something and the students get to work. Then the conflict begins. They get out their iPad for something and I catch them playing a game or searching for nonsense. They are talking to their friends and I catch them chit-chatting instead of working. After dealing with the offenders the class usually settles into a routine of them working to complete their teacher's assigned task, but it's obvious that it's only my vigilance that is keeping them going. I'm not talking about bad kids here. These are good kids with great teachers, but it seems as though this back and forth is part of what school is. The students will do something until they are told not to. The teachers and staff have to catch them and if they aren't caught the students congratulate each other on their avoidance of correction.
I fear I am painting a bleak portrait of these students. Please understand. They are not alone in this behavior. Adults trying to make conversation with kids often ask them if they like their teacher. They ask, "Does she give much homework?" Sometimes their comments about their dislike of homework have more to do with their own school experience than their knowledge of the kid they are talking to. People make comments congratulating kids when they have a day off school. I highly doubt anyone does this to intentionally make kids hate school, but they do it none the less. Parents can add to the adversarial system by getting mad at the teacher when the student is struggling with their grades and/or behavior. Parents are not always supportive of their child's teacher and by making their disagreement obvious they put a wall between the teacher and their student.
Society puts a great deal of focus on those individuals who succeed seemingly effortlessly. Spoiler alert: this is impossible. I won't take the space here today, but look up books like Outliers and Grit to see what it takes to be outstanding. How people get attention is a mind-boggling study into so many different aspects of culture, but I am confident in saying that being a hard-working student isn't in pop culture's idea of "cool."
So how do we end this adversarial system? A huge problem will take a huge solution, but here are a few things that I believe can help.
Students need to be part of their learning. I had a sign on my wall that outlined the responsibilities in my classroom which read, "Teacher's Job: 1. To provide the tools for the students to learn what they need to know. 2. To ensure a safe environment where everyone can learn. Student's Job: `1. To learn what they need to know. 2. To be safe." This is very simple, but it places the responsibility for learning onto the students, not the teachers. If a student doesn't know where the capital of the United States is that isn't the teacher's fault. It is the student's fault and they need to add that info to their bank of knowledge. Students should know that school is their opportunity to prepare for the world. The teachers are there to help them achieve their dreams not to crush them. Students should feel empowered to learn on their own and work for their own success. I am so tired of hearing people say things like, "No one ever taught me to . . ." Hello!!! We live in an age where you can learn about anything and everything from the resources of the internet. Watch a YouTube video, read a book, go to a lecture. It is not the responsibility of school or teachers to teach everything everyone needs to know. It is the teacher's job to teach you how you can learn everything you need to know. The learning is up to you.
Teachers should be careful not to send mixed messages about the benefits of learning and school. Obviously, teachers are pro learning, but sometimes we do things that are counterproductive. In college, my education professor told me something that has really stuck. She said to never reward students with no homework or leaving early because it cemented in their mind that homework and class were bad things that good kids avoided. She said that too many teachers (and parents) give worksheets and reading as punishment. This affected me deeply and to this day I am very careful about how I talk about learning.
Parents and other supportive adults can help by changing the conversations they have with kids. Ask questions like, "What are you studying in school? What have you learned this year?" I make Logan and anybody else I am driving home tell me something they learned that day. If they say they didn't learn anything I say, "Wow, well, I'm paying money for you to be at that school and your teacher didn't teach you anything. I'm going to have to call her when we get home. She should be teaching you something in the eight hours you're at school." At this point, my sarcasm has demonstrated the point and they will quickly come up with some fact or math operation to discuss with me. Discuss what is fun about school and find commonality with kids over that. And please, please, don't buy t-shirts like the ones below. Encourage your child's learning and champion their new knowledge. The benefit of homework is a complicated discussion, but if you are opposed or have issues please talk to your child's teacher rather than criticize the work itself.
Education is a complicated topic with layers and layers, but one thing is clear. No one benefits from an adversarial system of education. I think we would all benefit from working together to make learning something to celebrate and avoiding the slamming of the work that schools do to provide learning experiences.
Seeing kids wearing shirts like these always makes me sad.
"A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one."