Monday, May 29, 2023

Kids Today!

A letter has been circulating and in the news complaining about kids today. Things have changed in the last few years, but I don't think it's as dramatic a shift as is being portrayed yet, and while phones play a role, so does our cowardice in neglecting to set clear boundaries for kids, and so does an economic system that leaves them without attainable future goals.

The letter describes a Mississauga middle school in which students are defecating on bathroom floors, throwing things, stealing, vandalizing, and threatening staff and students. On top of all that, "Students have also called teachers names, have banged on their doors and run away and called the classroom phone and hung up repeatedly when the teacher has answered."

First, Some Perspective: 

I don't believe, as some commenters fear, that it's total anarchy in the schools today. I'm a little wary of any complaints about public schools these days, and hyperbole can be dangerous. We're in a precarious place where a tipping point of parents could enable privatized education to fully take hold. And that would be very bad.

As a teenager in the 80s, I went to one of the top schools in the region when there was a knife fight in the cafeteria. I also saw a classmate collect cash after winning a bet that he'd tell the teacher to fuck off, and I remember teachers uttering sexist, racist, and homophobic slurs. In my first years of teaching in the early 90s, a student beat the crap out of a supply teacher: he made the mistake of trying to bar the door when she got up to use the bathroom! I've talked to custodians who have lots of stories about the nastiness that happens in bathrooms - mainly the girls

When I started teaching we didn't have a common lunch, so kids had lunches for one of three periods so  they could all fit in the cafeteria, which translates to 1/3 of the kids hanging out in the halls noisily for 60% of the day. I can remember asking kids to turn down their amps in the hallway!! I actually loved it. There was so much energy and activity in the building; it felt alive. But some old fuddy-duddy teachers complained, and admin clamped down on hallway noise, added in teacher supervisions, and I got used to the quiet. Then we loosened the reigns during Covid, and I couldn't adapt to more noise again. It's not just the kids who've changed! I became that crabby teacher struggling to concentrate when people are chatting outside my classroom.

It's a continuous up and down as we let the reigns out, watch the kids falter, then tighten them up again. We're hitting the end of the pendulum when things are likely to tighten up again, which is good. We need to find that balancing point between too strict and too lenient, and it will forever be a continuous trial and error effort. 

But there's definitely an argument for tightening things up. We've mistaken free-reign for trauma-informed teaching, and that's a big mistake. 

On Phones and Social Media

Some people are calling for a ban on phones. I think it's a bit of a red herring for these issues as, from my anecdotal memory over the years, once kids started bringing phones to school, the amount of acting out in the classroom and random kerfuffles decreased. To a certain extent the phones placated the masses, so I doubt getting rid of them will affect the shenanigans going on. But actually having and enforcing a rule - any rule - might help! Kids need to see there are some consequences for their actions - and parents need to see that the school admin is taking charge. 

An issue we can't change, even if we get rid of phone during classes, is the effect of the internet in general. In 2017 in response to an article about phones ruining a generation, I wrote,

"About 120 years ago, Emile Durkheim studied suicides extensively, and the most pronounced form he studied was side from anomie - the chaos that happens when things change too fast such that it's difficult to determine clear social norms and standards. He specifically studied the change wrought from the industrial revolution to show that even positive change can cause fatal emotional turmoil. So I wonder if it's not just that phones show people what they're missing out on or create an addiction for 'likes,' but that our culture is ever shifting now, and kids can't get a handle on any stable norms of behaviour"

I also commented on the clever algorithms that provoke desire for more and more stuff so we can never feel a sense of enough, and the near continuous display of tragedies from around the world that kids used to be shielded from. The internet has dramatically shifted the landscape, and there's no escaping it. But, yes, it would help concentration and interaction if kids had phones away all class (despite having their chrome books open much of the time).

I've seen kids who are seriously addicted to their phones; they're rare, and we need much more help with serious interventions for them. Most kids, however, in my limited experience, can easily put it away when asked and keep it away until it's time to play a Kahoot! 

In early 2019, just before the pandemic hit, I wrote a response to an The Agenda episode on kids being messed up by social media, and I including Kant's rant about society's reluctance to create or become mature and responsible adults now that there are professionals to do everything for us. There have always been reasons people avoid growing up, and this is just one among many. This is just a caveat that we shouldn't hope banning phones will solve all the problems kids are facing today or prevent unwanted behaviours. I don't think phones bear the brunt of the responsibility for behaviours because the most concerning changes I've seen have come largely since Covid - and Ford. 

Kids (and Parents) Need Clear and Consistent Boundaries with Consequences

I've written about this before too, in 2013 after Malcolm Gladwell complained about American kids being outperformed by kids in China. I acknowledged our leniency with kids that can be seen in our class averages shifting from the mid-60s to the low-80s, "as we cower under parental badgering to lower our standards so more students can succeed. But, more to the point, I think it likely that the adolescent period - that liminal phase between childhood and adult - has always been, and will always be, somewhat difficult to manage." My rebuttal contains Plato's complaint about kids today who won't behave because "the father accustoms himself to become like his child and fears his sons . . . the teacher fears his pupils and fawns upon them, while pupils have in low esteem their teachers . . . elders, lowering themselves to the level of the young, sate themselves with pleasantries and wit, mimicking the young in order not to look unpleasant and despotic."

So this feeling isn't new. And the failure of parents and teachers to set clear limits isn't new either. But, it's more, and, as I said, we're just at the very edge of the pendulum's swing. I predict it's about to change direction.

In that 2013 post, I also discuss an article about the need to let kids fail. We're protecting them from feeling any consequences of their actions even more in the past couple years because we're all so affected by Covid. We're upset that our kids are upset, and we reacted by taking away some useful rules and limits and no longer getting mad at them when they're being jerks because they're going through so much. And I get that reaction, for sure. But taking away limits, takes away a sense of security. When kids have no consequences, they have no ground beneath them. 

Early in the pandemic I actually JOINED A COMMITTEE, which I hadn't done since my very first year of teaching when I quickly discovered all our hard work and late nights would have zero effect in real life. Covid made things seem possible. I suggested we revisit not letting kids fail, and I was quickly talked down from that ledge: If kids fail a course, they'll drop out, says one study somewhere that is having a vastly disproportionate effect on all we do given its complete absence from all my research searches. More on that another day. 

Here's the big problem with that: Kids need to feel the direct consequences of their actions, and we take that away when we pass them despite not even limited competence on display. Kids need to find their boundaries, what they can do and can't do, so they necessarily will act out. Someone needs to be at the other end of to let them deal with the results of their actions. As it stands now, in my experience, refusing to hand in work suddenly means just handing it in later, after it was taken up. In a quest to help a student, I got called out for refusing to accept work months late (because a parent called the office - the student never approached me about it or even tried to hand it in), despite having alternative assessments set up, and I was made to accept the original work. Then of course kids got word of that, and I had several students handing in work after the answers were posted. Not only does that sideswipe learning the course content, but it also prevents kids from feeling the effects of their actions which can inevitably change their behaviours for the better. They did learn something, however: they learned that they don't have to learn anything about the course in order to get 80s in a 4U class. And I really worry for them in university. 

We are rescuing kids instead of supporting them. Some parents are swooping in to save kids in grade 12 classes, months away from university. Some kids are learning to expect to be rescued by parents now, which doesn't create any fortitude or skills necessary for working through problems. We need to give kids the words to use to help them talk to teachers or anyone they're having a conflict with instead of so many parents stepping in, intervening, yelling at admin who then drag me out of class demanding I close my window when the CO2 in the room is near 2,000 ppm! Students are leaving high school unable to stand on their own feet because someone has always done the work of conflict "resolution" for them. We're no longer dealing with helicopter parents; these are boots on the ground armed tanks ready to take out any adversary. 

There are some parents working hard to change the system so that parents can have more say in the classroom, and I really worry they know not what they do. A few years back I had a student excused from the grade 10 history WWII unit because it was offensive for him to hear anything negative about Hitler. The formal rules say we can't pass a student if they don't show competence in each essential learning, but admin overruled that by telling me to just ignore that unit of study for him. Just get him that credit. That felt like a major shift - the effect of the far-right in our classrooms. 

During Covid, I was called out and told off - in listening distance of my class - several times for enforcing classroom rules that I've had for years, like no eating in class. One parental complaint is enough. Saying "No" to kids and their parents suddenly feels like it's just not possible. Allowing teachers to even have clear rules in their classroom is only permissible if nobody complains. (However, some of this is possibly just a me issue. It's possible they were just prodding the Covid-crazy out the door because I was retirement age - I've seen that type of thing happen in various ways before, like a tech teacher suddenly given a full phys ed course load. It happens.)

One day a random kid was yelling at another in the hallway. When I gently reminded him to go to class, he told me off: "You have no right to tell me where I need to be!" A call to the office revealed that he's got a "problem dad" who is causing headaches for everyone (a lawsuit was implied as was a hands off approach with the kid). I was told that he'll get bored and leave eventually; there's just nothing else to be done! 

Well, nothing except to haul the kid down to the office despite dad's threats. 

Some administrators are too afraid of parents, some of whom are on a whole other level of threats that I've never seen before. It's just a tiny number of parents, but I've had threats to destroy me and my children that still has me rattled, and one who asked me all about my vagina to make sure I'm not trans. Seriously! Things are getting unnerving. 

So I don't blame admin for cowering - you couldn't pay me enough to do that job in regular circumstances, and these are not regular circumstances. We need better supports for admin to be able to enforce reasonable rules without fearing for their lives. Otherwise we're seeing a total capitulation to the loudest and scariest. I have no idea what that change could look like, and I'm hoping it doesn't mean a police presence in every office. But it has to be something. From my very limited vantage point as a former teacher and a former blink-and-you'll-miss-it trustee, the very few yelling, threatening parents are winning, enabling inappropriate and disruptive behaviours in the classroom at a cost to the vast majority of students who just want to do school without all the drama.

It's the Economy, Stupid

In 2016, I wrote that economic competition is affecting kids and parents who are desperate for high marks instead of solid learning because they need their kids to get into a good school in order to get one of fewer and fewer good jobs. That hasn't changed. But it has continued to get much worse. Kids who recognize they're not going to be in that group who has some way to get ahead have no clear reason to make an effort. We're future oriented creatures that need to have something to work towards. When factories are outsourced and fast food jobs don't pay enough to enable someone to move out of their parents home, then what, exactly, do we have to offer in the way of a carrot to sit still and learn something?? For that faction of the kids, if we take away their phones, they'll just stop coming to school. Left to their own devices, they might just play video games all day or maybe learn to be petty thieves. At worst, they'll get radicalized. 

It's possible that, in a warped and macabre way, the fact that Covid is taking out so many workers that Ford has opened up the workforce to younger kids might actually serve to help this situation by providing more employment opportunities. But then they still can't afford their own rent.

In the chapter on Rwanda in Collapse, Jared Diamond explains that the genocide was precipitated by economic decline. Specifically, it was provoked because 100% of 25-year-old men were still living at home, unable to live on their own or start their own families. We need a place for these kids to work that will pay enough that they can rent an apartment. I know kids with university degrees, gainfully employed, still living at home because their jobs don't pay enough to be able to afford rent anywhere. The lack of affordable housing mixed with wage stagnation is having a domino effect on kids that could very well be our ruin, and we can't wait out Ford's term of office before fixing it. 

So, sure, ban phones in classrooms. But without a hope for a future for themselves, what have kids got to lose if they refuse to follow the rules??


lungta said...

I certainly do resonate with your thinking. Kids being the canary in the coal mine of many systems in collapse.
Imagine a little girl saying "I think i'm a boy" being told "No you are not"
Parenting has gone from correction and guiding to accomodating and promoting everything is allowable and at the same time very little is attainable.
Chinese aphorism
"It is hard to threaten a man with death when they have nothing to live for."
Or maybe it is just a bad day here in voting Alberta.

Marie Snyder said...

Such a day in Alberta!! I get that parents are frantic, but I'm blown away by the loss of that kind of lesson we'd get - the type of things common on any old family-type sitcom - where parents make kids go back to apologize or give them some ideas about how to solve a problem instead of solving it for them. Kids really expect their parents to be there to yell at profs when they're in universities. How long before universities give in and actually listen to them?? As things start to fall apart, decorum and basic manners become more important to maintain the slightest semblance of civilization!