As a high school teacher I get that a lot. I hear lots of unflattering references to our youth, mostly from well-meaning people who have little contact with today’s young people. Fueled by media accounts of disruptive kids, disdainful of learning, it is easy to see why many adults conclude that kids today are unruly, disaffected and just plain rude.
The violence we have witnessed in schools in Colorado, Vermont and Wisconsin has only worsened this perception. For that reason I would like to dispel some of the negativity heaped upon our kids today. To do so it is necessary to dispel as well some of the myths and stereotypes surrounding today’s youth.
First, kids today are not lazy. In fact, more is demanded of them at school than was true for their parents. Gone are the days of the “social school,” a place which taught values and conformity even to those not interested in algebra or post-secondary education. Today’s emphasis on math and science, on advanced placement classes and on standardized testing reflects our society’s need to compete globally and our commitment to train every student to do so.
This job is compounded for teacher and student alike by press coverage that correctly identifies the shortcomings of both but rarely acknowledges the achievements of either. It is not helped by community attitudes which generously support “the school system” but reserve enthusiasm and applause for school athletics. Finally the work itself is undermined by hard times that hamstring remedial and enrichment programs and the stress that a struggling economy places on students’ families.
Second, American kids are not less educated or less intelligent than those of other countries. Instead our school curricula and our testing are more comprehensive and certainly more inclusive than that which exists in many other countries. Instruction here stresses relevance by tying disciplines together and relating them to every student’s existing knowledge.
The process is involved and unwieldy, made more so by America’s commitment to educate each child, regardless of his or her background or perceived ability. But it just may explain America’s continued pre-eminence in higher education, in the sciences, and in business, despite the dismal test scores we keep hearing about.
The fact is today’s students know far more than “one-size-fits-all” tests can begin to validate, and apply this knowledge in ways not easily assessed. There is no doubt they are enriched by the many facets of instruction they received in school. I applaud those teachers of art, social studies, physical education and humanities for what they contribute to these kids. If their “content area” does not appear on a standardized test, it’s only because its value is incalculable.
Lastly, kids today are no ruder than we adults were at their age. In fact they are generally kinder and more accepting of others than society as a whole. If they lack courtesy they model what they see. We must reacquire our civility if we wish to instill it in them. Imagine restaurants, highways, television and even the political arena transformed. If we would demand courtesy of our young we must all teach it. And courtesy demands we treat them as individuals, not as some category.
A good teacher knows that building a relationship with each student is the key to effective classroom management. This relationship should be based on mutual respect and acceptance that we adults were not very different as adolescents than the ones we greet at our classroom door each day. I remember being 15, and thinking that my teachers knew an awful lot about very, very little. I planned one day
to change the world. Today, I do.
Every student – each young person – deserves the chance to excel, and all the faith, optimism and encouragement we can lend them.
Geoffrey B. Gillett is a teacher in Milo and a candidate for an Me.D. at the
University of Maine.