Many Years of School Reform: A Veteran Teacher Reflects on Changes in Kids and the Classroom

Summary: My sister-in-law Ticia, a quality second grade teacher in a largely low income public elementary school in Florida, visited my wife and me recently. Our conversation turned into her veteran reflection about the changes she’s experienced in over forty years of teaching. Here be the gist. Much will not be news to other deep veterans, or even somewhat experienced observers, but hopefully will serve as a reflection on where we have arrived after some tumultuous decades of reform.

The attention span of young kids in particular has shortened, both in the intellectual and physical sense, over the duration of Ticia’s career. Roughly 50% of kids need to be moving all the time – feet, bodies, hands, fingers — whereas at the beginning of Ticia’s working life compulsive movement described perhaps only one or two out of a class of 30. This is one category of school measurement where boys have continued to reign supreme.

In the old days, at the beginning of school reform, the culture was still more structured, though undergoing change. In the main, classroom control rested on fear of consequence for misbehavior – respect for authority, if you prefer. Teacher talked at the front of the class. Most students sat still, whether paying attention or not. The imps of the day were more subdued and dealt with relatively summarily.

In the current tale, however, many more subtle forms of behavioral management are employed. De-emphasized is the Darwinian exercise of discipline, despite stubborn statistics about at risk youth suspension in often urban schools.  Arguably, some of this simply stems from changes in society, which now smiles more readily on spontaneity — the child being his or her self — than was the case in the aftermath of the 1950’s. Equally consequential is the influence of school reform, and the behemoth, No Child Left Behind, that mandated attention to each individual kid and his progress toward skill, and growing awareness that boys were being left behind in the increasingly poor fit of schools as wards of control.

For all its personification as demonic, No Child has left its indelible high water marks, this last among the most significant.

In order to bring every kid into the fold and to adapt to cultural changes in child rearing, the classroom teacher has had to become an expert not only in academics but also in complex group dynamics. She must wisely dispense accommodation to need; simultaneously she manages a fluid and moving feast of small spirits with wellness, teaching, and learning in mind. Kids getting up to go to the bathroom, brushing their neighbor in friendly harassment, whispering across the aisle, rising to get materials. Some of it is purposeful; some of it is just entropic static, the buzz of young beings. In contrast to the old classroom of clasped hands on desk (did that ever really happen other than in abstract?), the teacher is orchestrator of an intricate social world, with evolving techniques to manage movement and distraction. Each kid must be plumbed to figure out what makes him tick in order to fashion strategy that will keep him focused and learning, with improvement in test results at the fore.

Among other strategies, Ticia gives clues to kids to help them manage their active bodies, anything that will help them focus while minimizing disruption and noise. She coaches them to tap on their knuckles, or jiggle their legs. Certain equipment can help. My personal favorite would be an exercise ball on which to sit at my desk and modestly bounce (though I confess that the temptation to see how high I could bounce just might be disruptive). Stationary bicycles have been similarly tried. Higher desks allow some kids to stand rather than sit, and permit some movement. Some teachers will use tables rather than desks to minimize the fiddling with small toys surreptitiously. (Kids do that???!!!)

On the other side of the behavioral ledger some distractors are prohibited. Swirling lanyards sidetrack attention and often find their way to teacher’s desk, as do headbands and “slap bracelets,’ both of which get snapped and disturb focus, though headbands get lost as likely as not. Smart phones have yet to introduce themselves into Ticia’s particular low income second grade setting, but my spies in other young classrooms report a different experience. Some higher grades have either prohibited cell phones, or restricted their use to outside the classroom.

Ticia will also employ positive means of structure. Pencils, eraser, red pen, highlighter are all deployed to a specific spot on the student desks. Such behavioral markers – “how we do it here” – help contain random movement. ADD kids in particular rush to get work finished. The unoccupied as we know can be wild cards, but to the side are engaging computer applications – “brain gyms” that entice further learning of language arts and math. Of course, such desirables could incentivize a counterproductive race through curriculum. Sometimes hard for teacher to win.

Yet in part it is the creation of such routines, which provide subtle structure, that allow both teacher and student to thrive, despite cultural cross currents. Ticia: “kids are such communicators these days, you have to let them whisper and talk. Though the autistic kids suffer from the buzz in the room, other kids can handle the noise level, they swim in it, even if the teacher may sometimes have trouble tolerating it.”

In fact, in some important ways “kids own the classroom,” with responsibility and some say in how things go. Use of curriculum derived from Covey’s “Seven Habits” sets this stage. In important ways, these days a teacher seeks to channel the kids’ energy in constructive directions and harness it rather than dam it up as in “old school” practice.

To paraphrase Ticia again: “It takes a lot more work on the teacher’s part to earn respect from the kids. In a typical classroom there are a lot of strong egos that ‘wants what they want.’  Kids are more personally empowered, including in the largely low income classroom where I teach. It’s hard to keep the kids at a task, which they tend to want to get done quickly with sloppy results. Everything has to be fair. Kids will speak out, there’s little “being quiet,” with a higher percentage not meek and mild. There’s less verbal filtering. Kids take more freedom, will say inappropriate things, without looking around to see if teacher is in earshot. It’s a new kid.”

It should be noted that while Ticia has adapted to the changed culture with creative classroom management, she has also reinforced the culture and made it more viable by how she has taught her kids to manage themselves.

Ride the wave, I say. Against these challenges, team building has taken the place of sage on the stage. Teachers have to be savvy, and consistent in order to earn respect, which of course has always been true.

Recent research has found evidence that classrooms in which teachers promote a sense of belonging eventually send young people into society more likely to get a job and be self-supporting, to continue schooling, and to avoid complications with the law. In Ticia’s tale of the evolution of her school, are we seeing the generative of these classrooms?

It strikes me here that the medium is the message. With classroom adaptations to kids as they are, and the attempt to teach them a rational basis for social interaction, self-control and responsibility, are we not introducing a template for democratic awareness in these controlled democracies, and therefore expectations of political and cultural agency? Bad news for future oligarchs?

More of my sister-in-law’s reflections on changes in resources, special education, and working atmosphere for educators in my next post.


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