Don’t Blame My Students For Society’s Ills



As a public school teacher, I see many things – a multiplicity of the untold and obscure.

On a daily basis, I see the effects of rampant poverty, ignorance and child abuse. I see prejudice, racism and classism. I see sexism, homophobia and religious intolerance.

And hardly any of it comes from my students.

Despite what some people might say in the media, on Facebook or at the local watering hole, the kids are all right. It’s what we, the adults, are doing to them that’s messed up.

It’s always been in fashion for grown-ups to trash the next generation. At least since Hesiod bemoaned the loss of the Golden Age, we’ve been looking at the current crop of youngsters waiting in the wings to replace us and found them lacking. They just don’t have our drive and motivation. In my day, we had to work harder than they do. If only they’d apply themselves more.

It’s all untrue. In fact, today’s children have it harder than children of the ‘70s and ‘80s did when we were their age! Much harder!

For one thing, we didn’t have high stakes standardized tests hanging over our heads like the Sword of Damocles to the degree these youngsters do. Sure we took standardized assessments but not nearly as many nor did any of them mean as much. In Pennsylvania, the legislature is threatening to withhold my students’ diplomas if they don’t pass all of their Keystone Exams. No one blackmailed me with anything like that when I was a middle schooler. All I had to do was pass my classes. I worried about getting a high score on the SAT to get into college, but it didn’t affect whether I got to graduate. Nowadays, kids could ace every course for all 13-years of grade school (counting Kindergarten) and still conceivably only earn a certificate of attendance! Try using that for anything!

Moreover, my teachers back in the day didn’t rely on me so they could  continue being gainfully employed. The principal would evaluate them based on classroom observations from time-to-time to assess their effectiveness based on what he or she saw them doing. But if I was having a bad day during the assessment or if I just couldn’t grasp fractions or if I was feeling too depressed to concentrate – none of that would affect my teacher’s job rating. None of it would contribute to whether my teacher still had an income.

Think of how that changes the student-teacher relationship. Now kids as early as elementary school who love their teachers feel guilty on test day if they don’t understand how to answer some of the questions. Not only might their score and future academic success suffer, but their teacher might be hurt. That’s a lot of pressure for people who’ve just learned how to tie their shoes. They’re just kids! In many cases, the educator might be one of the only people they see all day who gives them a reassuring smile and listens to them. And now being unready to grasp high-level concepts that are being hurled at kids at increasingly younger ages may make them feel responsible for hurting the very people who have been there for them. It’s like putting a gun to a beloved adult’s head and saying, “Score well or your teacher gets it!” THAT’S not a good learning environment.

Finally, child poverty and segregation weren’t nearly as problematic as they are today. Sure when I went to school there were poor kids, but not nearly as many. Today more than half of all public school children live below the poverty line. Likewise, in my day public policy was to do away with segregation. Lawmakers were doing everything they could to make sure all my classes had increasing diversity. I met so many different kinds of people in my community school who I never would have known if I’d only talked with the kids on my street. But today our schools have reverted to the kind of separate but equal mentality that was supposed to be eradicated by Brown vs. Board of Education. Today we have schools for the rich and schools for the poor. We have schools for whites and schools for blacks. And the current obsession with charter schools and privatization has only exacerbated this situation. Efforts to increase school choice have merely resulted in more opportunities for white flight and fractured communities.

These are problems I didn’t face as a teenager. Yet so many adults describe this current generation as “entitled.” Entitled to what!? Less opportunity!? Entitled to paying more for college at higher interest for jobs that don’t exist!?

And don’t get me started on police shootings of young people. How anyone can blame an unarmed black kid for being shot or killed by law enforcement is beyond me.

Children today are different. Every few years their collective character changes.  Today’s kids love digital devices. They love things fast-paced, multi-tasked and self-referential. But they don’t expect anything they haven’t earned. They aren’t violent criminals. As a whole they aren’t spoiled or unfeeling or bratty. They’re just kids.

In fact, if I look around at my classes of 8th graders, I see a great many bright, creative and hard-working young people. I’m not kidding.

I teach the regular academic track Language Arts classes. I don’t teach the advanced students. My courses are filled with kids in the special education program, kids from various racial, cultural and religious backgrounds. Most of them come from impoverished families. Some live in foster homes. Some have probation officers, councilors or psychologists.

They don’t always turn in their homework. Sometimes they’re too sleepy to make it through class. Some don’t attend regularly. But I can honestly say that most of them are trying their best. How can I ask for more?

The same goes for their parents. It can be quite a challenge to get mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, brother, sister or other guardians on the phone. Parent-teacher conferences are very lonely in my room while the advanced teacher is mobbed. But I don’t generally blame the parents. In my experience, most moms and dads are doing the best they can for their kids. Many of my student’s have fathers and mothers working multiple jobs and are out of the home for the majority of the day. Many of my kids watch over their younger brothers and sisters after school, cooking meals, cleaning house and even putting themselves to bed.

I wish it wasn’t like that, but these are the fruits of our economy. When the recession hit, it took most of the well-paying jobs. What we got back was predominantly minimum wage work. Moreover, people of color have always had difficulty getting meaningful employment because of our government sanctioned racial caste system. Getting a home loan, getting an education, getting a job – all of these are harder to achieve if your skin is black or brown – the same hue as most of my students and their families.

So, yes, I wish things were different, but, no, I don’t blame my students. They’re trying their best. It’s not their fault our society doesn’t care about them. It’s not their fault that our nation’s laws – including its education policy – create a system where the odds are stacked against them.

As their teacher, it’s not my job to denigrate them. I’m here to lift them up. I offer a helping hand, not a pejorative finger.

And since many of the factors that most deeply affect education come from outside the school, I think my duty goes beyond the confines of the classroom. If I am to really help my students, I must be more than just an educator – I must be a class warrior.

So I will fight to my last breath. I will speak out at every opportunity. Because my students are not to blame for society’s ills. They are the victims of it.

NOTE: This article also was published in Wait What?, and the Badass Teachers Association Blog.


18 thoughts on “Don’t Blame My Students For Society’s Ills

  1. If teachers are failures, it’s for a damn good reason.

    .Education has been indicted for not keeping up with the international Joneses. For falling behind … at least according to some rather sticky, easy-to-manipulate criteria few actually understand. For being resistant to change and slothy in their march into the “Brave New World” of this technological revolution. Yup. That’s the rap. Oh, and teachers are failing students because, well, they’re lazy, tenure-loving part-timers who are overpaid and underworked. They’re averse to change and allergic to reform … and now it’s time to heel them all and bring the profession to new standards. Sounds wonderful. But is it fair?

    No, it’s not very at all.

    The schools most of us remember don’t much resemble the schools of today. In the last two decades schools have been transformed extensively. Fewer and fewer are the local warm spots where we learned to read and write and think. Where we learned to play nice and honed our manners. It’s where we grew each year facing new levels of responsibility and new levels of expectation that were reasonable. Those schools gave us security away from home and a semi-independent sense of excitement. But things are changing rapidly.

    Today, the mission of schools is quite different. And for many schools, it’s a mission they do not want to own up to.

    What we ask of schools is now unreasonable given that the school year and day are virtually unchanged over time. But that doesn’t stop the demands from lining up at the door. And lots of societal sins line up there as well. Society’s inequities are easily spotted in classrooms across America. And schools, in addition to the customary mission, are now required to remedy these sins … and pilloried when they can’t. It’s what we ask teachers to do. And it is not fair.

    There are two disturbing forces in play today. The demand that schools be panacea-central for society’s failings … and the onslaught of the “Know-It-All” class.

    The agenda delivery man seems to arrive at schools daily. Teach kids about the fading rainforest, vanishing wet-lands and the melting ice caps. Squelch birthday parties because … well, because. cupcakes are lethal. Insist that the forest is where we all belong … rubbing sticks and unpolluting the planet. Pummel Columbus and ban Halloween. Toss in some gender-mania and don’t go lite on the sex ed. In fact, go whole hog.

    There are people out to destroy childhood innocence as if it were a plague. Tag has been bagged in schools because it involves … touching. I kid you not. Dodge-ball is now an act of violence … it’s assault with a deadly ball. I’m sure yo-yo’s are next … that spinning has to be unhealthy. Run it out of schools.

    Schools sometimes seem like fright-centers where kids are warned of this or that scary eventuality. I’m sure there are some poor six year olds who fear that one day they’ll see a dead polar bear on the front lawn. We’ve even toyed with their food! French fries and pizza are absolute outlaws … I am certain there’s some over-zealous school that actually has wanted posters of those nasty things. Over-zealous. Yeah. That’s the term I was looking for. That … and asinine.

    Now, to the newly minted “Exceptional Class” who think themselves born Socrates. Who are these educational intruders who think that their political position or their bank account gains them the same credibility as men and women who have lived this profession for decades? What leads them to believe that they have discovered the elusive Holy Grail of education … that exquisite essential that’s eluded all of mankind since forever? I know what leads them. Ego.

    These intruders will lie and lie again in order to cement their agenda. They insist American schools are failures … when nearly the entire world looks to this nation for leadership in every thing from business to baseball. How did this nation ever become the premier country when we are all so dreadfully dumb? What a joyous accident.

    These phony-fakers have snookered America. And teacher bashing is required to keep the current deformed-reform movement energized. For them, attacking teachers is like kicking the dog. These frauds have also corrupted the union leadership … buying them off … and more and more teachers feel abandoned by the union elites who have feathered their own circumstances while destroying the situations of lots of others.

    It’s these know-it-alls who by their sheer genius have devised new educational strategies like Common Core … which happen to rain dollars on them by the zillions … and now want the educational world to hop to it. Of course, it’s a phenomenal failure. But no worry. Nope.They’ve got teachers to scourge, schools to take over, legislators to bribe and money to be made.

    Teachers are not failures. They’re handy scapegoats. If their performance was so awful-dismal, this nation would be building fences to keep folks from fleeing. Instead, America is the planetary destination for those who dream of a life well lived … for a life filled with opportunity for their children. And that opportunity starting-point is found just down the road … at your local school. That’s where dreams are made true. And the dream-makers are called teachers.

    Denis Ian


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