An award winning teacher of 42 years is telling kids not to become teachers. We are at a crucial crossroads in education in America. It feels like the people in charge are reaching for some way to fix the system. It also feels like they are trying to complicate the whole thing. In life we should KISS - Keep It Simple Silly.
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When I became a teacher in 1998 I thought that all teachers were in it because they cared about the well being of children. I looked around at my at my fellow students at teaching college with an idealistic eye. We were all out to change the world and make it a better place. Once I set foot in an actual school environment, I started to notice something different. People were teachers for myriad reasons. Yes, some were there to improve the lives of children, both academically and emotionally, but in retrospect not many. Others were there because it was a job that had a long summer break. Regardless of their personal reasons, it didn't change the immense and powerful position we were all thrust into as newly crowned educators. The power to impact minds and lives.
The ability to impact someone's thinking, someone's confidence, and someone's inspiration is truly a powerful feeling. I immediately recognized those teachers that abused this new found power. As educators, we have a choice everyday when working with students: impact them positively or negatively. From the get-go I always chose the route that required more energy and made me more mentally exhausted at the end of the each day, each week, and each year: make a positive impact. To make a positive impact on a child requires a teacher to care. Caring requires compassion. Compassion requires a commitment to understanding the whole child. Commitment requires energy.
The other day I walked into one of my eighth grade student's homes for a tutoring session. She attends a local suburban middle school. I hadn't seen her in a couple of weeks due to her February vacation. I asked her how it was to get back to school after being on a break for nine days. Not only had she been out of school for over a week, but this winter has truly disrupted the rhythm of students and teachers needing to keep things moving forward in the classroom. She proceeded to tell me that she didn't go to school that day. She didn't look or sound sick. I asked her why. Her response, "I didn't feel like it...because I am not liking school." I've heard this response before from students, it is nothing new. Many students, particularly middle school students, say they don't like school or don't like a specific teacher. I always take it as an excuse for not doing well or wanting to work hard, and then I proceed to take it as a teachable moment. I say that they won't always like every teacher, just like they won't like every boss they have when they get into the workforce. I tell them that it is not a popularity contest in school and that teachers are trying to do the best they can do. Let me put this student in perspective however. She is incredibly intelligent and mature for her age. Her organizational skills are pretty solid, gets great grades, and is an absolute incredible writer. Needless to say, I was immediately concerned with her, "I don't like school." comment. In the two years that I have been working with her, I have never heard her say anything remotely close to resembling this comment.
My nature to press a student when they say or act out of character took over, and I continued. She brought up a teacher that she had been having problems with since the beginning of the school year. We had previously talked about the situation when it started in September. My advice to her was to seek out the extra one on one help before or after school from him to show that she cared about his class, her studies, understanding the concepts, and doing well. She tried and tried again. In the hour after school, his class was packed with many other students. In the mornings, there were also several students. When she had her opportunity to speak with him directly, he offered minimal academic help, and instead consistently chose to point out her negative attributes versus her positives, and reminded the student of her obvious strong capabilities. At first, it felt like he recognized her as a student with incredible potential but just wasn't reaching it. He had high expectations for her, which he rightly should have had. However, his continual focus on her negatives over the course of the year began to wear on this student.
As soon as she started to open up about the effect that this one teacher was having on her, the tears started rolling. She had kept it bottled up inside since September, and I was the one that brought it to the surface. You see, I recognize that my job is to not only help students reach their academic potential, but it is also to coach them to reach their self esteem potential and perspective level. I felt at that point that I had a responsibility to make her aware of who she knows she is , and remind that she is highly capable and is gong to be an incredibly successful student going forward and person in the future. I remind her that there are only four months left in school. Next school year, this school year will be last school year.
My compassion for her soon turned to strong disappointment towards her teacher. All I could think of that this teacher, in his position of power, had no idea the negative impact he was having on this girl. Positively impacting a child with encouragement and direction can have a long lasting effect on his or her life, one where the new changes cement themselves into place for good. I have a cache of anecdotal evidential examples. However on the other hand, negatively impacting a child can be as equally, if not more, powerful and can take a student that his heading in a great direction, and screw them up for life. You see, if we interrupt the direction nature is taking a child, and we don't fan the fire and guide him or her in the positive direction that most of them are innately going already, we will change the course of his or her history. Could be problematic. Most people would assume that all teachers care about their students. While the majority of the educators in this country do care about the students in their classrooms, I will tell you that that is not true about all. The level of care and commitment coming from today's teachers wavers from state to state, district to district, school to school, and person to person. I do know that today's teacher is getting tugged in more directions than ever before in the history of free public education, influencing teachers about how they feel about being a teacher. More hoops, more standards, more meetings, more desks. The teachers who care are the difference makers, and most students can tell the difference between those that genuinely do and those that don't. Sincerity cannot be faked or forced.
Raise your hand if you think Mathematics are important. There has been a lot of talk this school year about the Common Core State Standards. What are they? How are they different from what our students have been learning all these years? Click here to see how the math standards have changed. It sounds like we are going in the right direction. Having a big picture way of thinking is crucial to understanding new concepts as they arise. Equally crucial is the ability to apply these concepts. So far over 75% of the states, the District of Columbia, four U.S. territories, and the DoDEA have aligned their school standards with the Common Core. Let's hope that this shift brings about a major change and helps create more math minded students, so we can rise again amongst the ranks of the world's best math students.
The dilemma is real. I'm sure my wife and I are not the only ones with it. As a society, we are moving at lightning speed towards the ultimate outcome of technology fully taking over in our children's education. It may come with a price however. There are plenty of traditional educational philosophers still out there who believe that textbooks, taking notes in notebooks, and having one on one, face to face interaction between students and teachers are still the most rewarding and beneficial ways for reaching students and helping them succeed. That mode of thought is quickly becoming outdated however. I am at the crossroads with my own children, as well as my clients' students. Eventually the thin virtual line between the traditional paper-pencil approach and the screen-stylus must be crossed, then embraced with a commitment and sincere enthusiasm by all of us. I don't think we will have a choice in the matter. In this age of information everyone knows everything, or so it seems that way. Everyone knows that to make pencils, paper, and books we need to harvest trees. Even with recycling, plenty of trees are still felled. People may argue that this is a reason to make the switch over from tangible to virtual much sooner. Save the forests. Then others will say that too much screen time in and out of school could drastically and negatively affect the children of our society today and into the future. Save the children. Can we have it both ways?
The rest of the developed world is willfully trying to meet America's level of acquiescence in terms of its commitment to technology in almost every facet of its citizens' lives. Of course there are plenty of societies that have blown by us, especially in the Asian nations, particularly Japan. However, they have held on to plenty of tradition throughout their society and have a better grasp on who they are as a culture, while we are still trying to figure out where our society is heading. I question whether we will be able to responsibly handle the major shift to an everyday approach of managing our lives on screens. The jury is still out, but some early evidence suggests that it is all so new and novel, and coming at us so fast, that many people, young and old, are making bad choices with the power they have in their palms. We know of stories of students bullying other children through text messaging, emailing, and Facebook. For the people receiving the maltreatment, there is no way of shielding themselves from the potential barrage of virtual abuse and libel. As parents it is our job to lay the boundaries and the foundation of how to treat people correctly early on in our children's lives; keeping them engaged in technology at a healthy level by embracing it responsibly.
I grew up with technology. The day I received Mattel's Intellivision game system for Hanukkah has been emblazoned on my mind ever since the moment my parents handed me the oversize box with the blue and gold wrapping paper. I was thirteen years old. I am now 45. On that day, the shade of white I turned followed by the ‘over the top’ reaction, was something I had only experienced that one time in my childhood when receiving a material object, probably in my life for that matter. Maybe a set of ski boots once. I realized long ago that material things, regardless of monetary value, can’t bring the ultimate happiness in life. However, I used to love video games. At the time, I had been voraciously reading electronics and video game magazines every free moment I had. Gamers new that the technology and the game experience from Atari's 2600, which was the big boy on the block then, was just given a shot of steroids when Mattel introduced their system. Due to my early infatuation with electronics and technology when I was a young man, you would think that I would be following the herd like the rest of our society and its fixation on electronics. However, I have three children who cannot get enough of the “surprise eggs” videos on YouTube. These videos are of adults and children, mostly adults, unwrapping surprise eggs, blind bags, and blind boxes, all with toys, candy, or stickers of some sort in them. My kids have developed and addiction to these videos. In the videos, you mostly see a pair of hands and hear a bizarre play voice by an adult behind the camera. Apparently there are hundreds of thousands of people who like these videos around the world, because they have anywhere between 3 million and 4 million views. Granted a 1000 of those views were generated right here in Needham, MA at my house.
This is where the conflict of interest creeps in. While on one hand, I do enjoy the incredible convenience and power of having the Internet at your fingertips on a touch screen device that you can pretty much run your life on. On the other hand, I have three children that have grown up with technology as an extension of their own appendages, and enjoy the novelty equally, if not more than their Daddy. On the third hand, as an educator I understand the absolute usefulness, and major benefits technology has had on education, and what a great tool it can be to work with children. There lies the quandary. The exposure to screens and the difficulty to limit screen time starts early in most children's and parents’ lives these days, respectively. Especially if through sibling interaction your children get exposed to surprise egg videos, and you have no choice but to acquiesce to their cries for this mind numbing interaction with the iPad. The only way to limit the use of our five screens amongst our kids, including my phone and my wife's, is to hide said screens during the week. For some reason, it took me and my wife the better part of two years before we truly started to implement a weekday moratorium on iPods and iPads. We have had the weekend only policy in effect for about a year now. It’s nice. We limited their exposure to it all. Yeehah! It's a good system that gets tested every weekday by youngest daughter. My five year old son would test it often in the beginning, but got used to not having it by playing with his sisters more and using his imagination. You would have thought that this would have solved the problem we were most concerned with. We were lambasted with a new problem, one that was unforeseen earlier when we came up with the brilliant plan to limit our kids' screen time. Now that their screen time availability had shrunken by more than seventy-five percent, on the weekends they wanted to be satiated by the rapture of the screen. Immediately there were skirmishes that first weekend as to whom would use which phone or tablet. The easy fix is to just by another tablet, thus increasing the screen square footage in the house. However, I don't necessarily want to go out and drop a few hundred dollars on another device just to appease and preoccupy my children even more, because that's exactly against what I am trying to accomplish.
I can honestly say that sometimes the newfound struggle that comes with raising children in a technology driven world can be a blessing and a curse. The reality most likely is that the valiant goal of being a responsible parent and successfully limiting your children's time on screens is futile. The introduction into schools has made the battle at home that much more challenging. Don't get me wrong, I am not a minimalist tree-hugger that perceives that the society wide fixation on personal technological devices is the work of the devil, or worse, a government conspiratorial ploy to watch our every move or listen to our every word. I don't play video games anymore, but I am enamored and amazed as equally as everyone else around me at the speed in which it seems that all of this technology actually crept up on us. I also believe that education is benefiting and will continue to benefit from the advancements in individualized instruction from laptop carts in classrooms to students' own iPads. As a parent I often wonder if we know what we are getting ourselves into. Are we able to understand what the impact is going to be on our student population across the country in just ten shorts years from now? It seems that there is already been a major impact on the social skills of many of our youth today. Does it mean that it is just going to continue because it is a new obstacle to deal with in the adventure of raising children and teaching students? Some would argue yes. Some would argue no. The jury is still out. What do you think?
I believe it is safe to say that growing up in today's world is more complicated that it ever has been. With the obvious exposure to a 24hr news cycle and the endless hours of screen time, today's students are dealing with an inordinate amount of visual, auditory, and mental stimulation, as well as information overload. How can parents deal with such influential things in their children's lives? That is the dilemma that most of them today are struggling with. Our technology revolution, while it has been a mainstream part of our lives for years now, still is relatively new in the whole scope of history. Parents and teachers alike are still learning the novelties, benefits, and drawbacks from being connected 24/7. It still seems amazing to me, and I've been around since the revolution started. We see how children born during this unprecedented time of technological advancement are also struggling to understand their own limits and capabilities of the small screen their holding in the palm of their hands. Where are we headed?