Schools and Culture: The Wearing Down of Teacher, Part B

Summary: Last post I reacted to news that 46% of teachers leave the profession in their first five years, and suggested some of the reason has to do with ills in the culture, ills that create students too little connected to legitimate authority, unimpressed by and unwilling to engage with too many of the good enough efforts on the part of their teachers. This post continues the thought.

As I contemplated the stunning news that 46% of teachers quit the profession within five years, I remembered a conversation last spring with one of my students who belatedly recognized that he was going to fall short of credits for graduation at the normal time. Our interaction speaks to the indictment of culture I discussed in my previous post, and also to the frustrations of teachers, particularly young teachers not so much older than their high school charges, who may finally become fed up with the resistance of their students.

Though inspired by a particular individual, these observations are really a composite of too many such stories.

Harold showed up in my office, perhaps at my instigation, perhaps his, but early in the second semester of his senior year when renewed analysis of his credit situation made his graduation on time a long shot. This was not the first conversation we had had about his credit deficiencies. A bright enough kid, with clearly the capacity to handle what his teachers placed before him, he nonetheless failed too many of his classes. Each year his parent would receive a letter detailing what he needed to do to enroll in a credit recovery program.

Most kids I encounter in such a situation are contrite, worried, and vow to turn things around. Most in a passive manner accept the application for credit retrieval that I offer. I am normally pretty straightforward about my assessment of their chances of making up the missing credits on time – that is, by their scheduled graduation date. If it becomes clear that he or she has run out of time, the strategies to get to graduation might shift to include a wrap up stint at one of our alternative high school programs.

So it is with Harold. He is in absolutely the last category of long shot. Does he have the skills to pull it off? Possibly. Will his study habits and his motivation undergo the radical transformation necessary to pull it off? Pretty unlikely.

As I outline as I have for many others the choices before him, Harold surprises me by going on the offensive, angrily, accusingly. The school, he declares, is not teaching him anything he needs to know, and so has not been worthy of his attention. It is not his fault that he has fallen short as he has. Were the teachers more engaging, were the curriculum more stimulating, he implies, he would be right there at the nub of the interaction. The failure is with the school; he seems to lay the responsibility right in my lap, as its representative.

Now, I will not ever claim that everything we do in our school is true and beautiful, nor that any one of the mortals in the classrooms are endlessly exciting, but many students, even mediocre ones, come to appreciate one or another — usually several — of their teachers and, despite the same hindrances Harold addresses, still seem to squeak through on their 60% effort. They take care of business, if not well. Many of our teachers are reasonably substantial human beings, and have things to offer that Harold apparently has been too blindfolded to see.

Though Harold’s charge seems ludicrous on the surface, I believe he speaks for an undercurrent of sentiment in many students. Simply put, authority ain’t what it used to be.  Fifty or sixty years ago, standard authority, that of teachers as well, was much more intact than at the present. Students of that era seldom thought to question the legitimacy of what they were taught, though such passivity was a problem of a different sort.

Today by contrast, all authority has become suspect. It is too facile to say parents have not been authoritative enough with their children; the phenomenon we see in our students is too widespread, too deeply ingrained in the culture, to simply hang parents out to dry. Truly the reasons are complex, beyond the scope of this brief post, though would likely start with the iconoclasm of the 60’s and 70’s that has left us with both yin and yang, pro and con.

Among the con, I would say, is breakdown in the inclination of youth to value as much as should be valued the wisdom of their elders, whether parents or teachers, cops or priests. With communication explosions, including the internet and the ubiquitous cell phone, youth have many alternate sources of authority available to them, whether friends or cultural avatars, without the experience to choose who to follow in their own best interest.

With a softening of the old hard authority, and the entrance of negotiation into the family nexus, together with the cultural arrival of more second chances, fear of authority has diminished, which makes the search for wider sources of information less intimidating. Of course some of this is positive, but the pendulum has swung too far for our children’s good, to the point where they are too much rudderless.

Thus is way too quick a trip taken through the cultural changes of the last forty or fifty years.

The brief voyage brings us back to Harold and his teachers. Not only do the latter have to be expert in their field of instruction, know how to manage a class and bring them to a cohesive understanding of the material in a semester or two, they also have to roll back sixteen or so years of Harold’s cultural experience that has left him wary of the authority of those around him and collapsed into a fortress like blame of others. In one sense he is right to blame; I do think the culture lets kids down.

But the discussion for now is the effect on the 46% of teachers who quit within five years. Teaching is tough enough without having also to repair the ego structure of students for whom the adult world has simply not spun a compelling enough narrative. For the 46% who leave teaching, arguably the uphill battle too much ravages their energies and their personal buoyancy.

The other side of the blaming, and the rejection of authority, is a kind of narcissistic celebration of one’s own juvenile impulse. Harold quite seriously tells me in our discussion that he “will quit school if he can’t graduate now.” His threat has the quality of a much younger kid threatening to take his ball and go home, as though somehow doing so will hurt someone else more than himself. He leaves me speculating how this same schema plays itself out as a threat in his household, with parents that I suspect may have heard the same tactic.

His is an assurance that he knows best, and is impervious to my inventive (I think) efforts to convince him to the contrary, as though he is one not used to accommodating an adult challenge to his alternative reality.

Again, I draw the picture sharply from composite to make the point. More commonly too many students I have worked with will not be as articulate nor as extreme as Harold in voicing their objections. More commonly they hang their head, vow to do better, and if fact sometimes do so in a piecemeal and inconsistent fashion. Beneath the surface of such ambivalent response is confusion about who they are, what they want, and where they are going, together with an unspoken distrust of efforts to direct them, which I trace in part to the culture in which they have been incubated. They seek refuge in pop culture, or music, their friends, and the many electronic devices that amplify all that impact. Not bad things in themselves, but as obsession serve poorly too often to prepare for the future as adults. And they serve as entropic forces that teachers struggle to corral and redirect in the classroom. Some finally tire of the struggle. 46% to be precise.

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