We see it in the USA. I read about it happening abroad. Something is happening at our schools, among our students.
What is “it?” It’s difficult to figure out what is a symptom, what is a cause, and what is a problem–or which problems are at the core. The fraying of academic communities; an opening gulf between teachers and students as the relationship often becomes more transactional; a general sense that schools are less happy places; a growing sense of student anxiety and inability to prioritize; and a rising sense that the work of learning is increasingly both secondary to resume-bolstering activities and a threat to student well-being.
If I had to generalize, I would say it feels (and the data appears to argue) that schools are becoming places of anxious, lonely toil for too many young people.
And it appears to be global. Students in the US and UK report similar trends. A colleague told of her conversation with an educator from Botswana. Our “sister” school there does everything right: service, physical activity, and so on. But still, there is a sensation of atrophy in community and culture. If this is so, what on earth can I, a single teacher at a small, private school, do to help my students and my school feel better?
Beware the single story, right?: in this case it’s screens. Most people I talk to point at smartphones in particular and screens in general as the culprit. The charts here come from Jean Twenge’s Atlantic essay, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” They invite arguments about correlation and causality, of course, and other writers have rushed to debunk the central thesis. But it seems clear that young people who use social media tell researchers that it lowers their self-esteem and their happiness. Still, I wonder, are smartphones the problem?
I will try and fail to avoid the familiar and depressing litany of worries filling the minds of young Americans and young people elsewhere. But I want to mention a stressor that those of us growing up during the Cold War did not experience: “ecoanxiety” This is how the American Psychological Association has termed it: atop all the other worries our students carry is the persistent sense that our way of life has destroyed the planet. Try to square that with the constant messages they receive about getting into the “right” college or finding a fulfilling career.
Sometimes, I must admit, I feel it is not easy to teach such young people about climate change, let alone about the Cold War, about the Holocaust, or American slavery and racism, and so on. They can seem so emotionally frail. Teachers are grumbling about this, it’s true( whether or not their observations are accurate). But we also know none of this–not climate change or rising oceans, not plastic pollution, not sweatshops or Trumpism–none of this is their fault. And we have to teach the students we are given, not the cherry-picked students who populate our sentimental memories.
Climate change, rising oceans, species collapse, degenerating democracies, rising costs of college, peak water, peak oil, overpopulation, the rending of the social and economic safety nets enjoyed by the Baby Boomers. And, here in the US, there is the fear of school shootings.
Give Them Structure, Skills, and “Only Connect …”
I am trying not to fool myself about the magnitude my ability to inflect my students’ experience. School is only part of a young person’s life. Some experts wonder if this generation of parents is doing something differently, somehow sending toxic signals. I don’t know. Then there is the social world of young people, beyond the reach of adults–but not advertisers and the FOMO clickbait artists of Instagram. So what to do? I can’t not try, right?
At the moment, I am seeing the benefits of “structure” for my students as a starting place. That means clear expectations in terms of their work and behavior combined with plenty of guidance and “sign-posting.” Within this there is room for informality if we want it. But permissiveness at school around deadlines or preparation, or even use of technology, is doing students no favors.
Second, I think it is incumbent upon me to think hard about what skills (and content) my students will need as adults, foreground them in my courses, and then assess those skills and habits that I’ve determined to be important. By this I mean that if I want my students to be more resilient–or more collaborative or whatever, I have to talk about it, teach to it, give them feedback on it, and then grade their work in it. And if I can’t figure out how to assess something I tell them I want them to learn, then I have to figure out how to do so. These kids need skills for solutions. They need to be equipped for the world we are bequeathing them. That means cooperation, empathy, persistence. I was not taught how to teach or assess any of this. So I will have to learn.
Third, borrowing from E. M. Forster, we need them to “only connect.” We need our students to learn to connect with one another–and with us–“to live in fragments no longer.” Schools have to be places where the power of love meets the power of cooperative action. Preparation, connection, and love (caritas).
We in the West have failed to love in many ways. The poor, the colonized, the violated, and even the earth itself. We know this to be true: we don’t need more wealth in the US, we need more love. More empathy and caring. And our students are not going to learn this on Instagram or by playing Fortnight. As teachers, we have to show our students that they matter and that their economic privilege (a word sometimes dangerously thrown around within earshot of young people) is also the power to do good. Simultaneously, they will need to be taught some history, economics, systems thinking, and ethics (for starters!). At the core, though, are human relationships: they are what we remember from our own schooldays, right?
While steadfastly remaining the adult in the room, I feel the need to roll up my sleeves and work alongside my students as they strive to make sense of the world. As I introduce them to so many unhappy topics of the past, I will try to make them feel safe, supported, and empowered. I recognize that this is so difficult, that I can’t “bond” with every student, that every student has different needs and strengths, and so on. Yet the best classroom I can imagine is one where the students and the teacher are learning together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and care–and a shared understanding that the connections between people are what will preserve us and lead us forward.
There’s one more thing. How can we teachers expect to guide our students into the future when we don’t provide them with a vision for a livable future? My students have told me that they can’t imagine themselves living as working adults in a stable world. They assume that my generation’s inaction on environmental issues will uncork all sorts of chaos and stress, some of it as yet unimagined. I don’t see a clear image of this world articulated in the emails I receive from charities, environmental groups, or human rights organizations. Certainly, the Right is not offering such a picture: their power these days is generated by the very fear of an uncertain future. We owe it to our students to be able to say that we believe the governments of the world are capable to make the changes needed to save the planet from petro-capitalism. Or do you, gentle reader, believe that all hope is lost? I won’t and I don’t. So I am working on creating a set of talking points though which I will try to help my students find more hope, and maybe some inspiration. The talking points will have to offer more than calls for peace, love, and understanding, however: these worthy things need to be linked to policies, to systems.
That’s where I am today. I would love to hear from anyone trying to figure where we go from here!