A big part of my job as an editor is listening. Listening to my teacher writers. Listening to colleagues I taught with who are still in the classroom. Listening to educators with huge platforms on TikTok or Twitter, and listening to teachers who insist on anonymity in telling their story via email. There’s something I keep hearing …
The kids have given up.
I’m not talking about the “kids these days” teacher in the building who complains about the youngest generation and their bad music or lack of work ethic. This is coming from teachers who genuinely love this generation of kids and who are experts at building classroom community and forging solid, meaningful relationships.
It’s coming from talented educators with decades of experience, as well as from teachers who started in August of 2019.
It’s coming from schools in the wealthiest zip codes to the most underfunded.
It’s coming from educators from coast to coast, and even from teachers in other countries.
Teachers are worried. Their students are not coming to school, or if they are, they’ve effectively tuned out. They might be loud about it, creating distractions or engaging in destructive behavior. Or they might be quiet about it, simply refusing to work or turn in assignments at all. But one thing is becoming clearer: more and more students are done.
Here’s what I’m hearing from teachers.
They don’t see education as having value.
Students as a whole do not care about school the same way students of the past did. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, but the system is going to have to adjust or crumble…
— The Madwoman in the Classroom (@heymrsbond) March 7, 2023
Many of us have heard education described as “the great equalizer,” a phrase coined by Horace Mann in 1848. But our opportunity gaps have widened since then, creating schools that offer entirely different opportunities for success depending on which zip code you’re in. This is poor design, but it’s intentional design. Modern desegregation and/or equity initiatives are often met with overwhelming resistance from schools and communities, despite the evidence that it’s the best way to close the opportunity gap.
Plus, 40% of Gen Zers say they don’t need a college degree for a successful career. So if education no longer offers social mobility and the school you attend is only designed for kids who are college-bound, why bother?
They know they don’t have to do the work or follow the rules.
I cannot decide if I love or hate teacher Twitter. Parts of it are awesome. However, I'm seeing more "what can the teacher do differently?" posts implying (to me) that the student doesn't need to put forth effort. I meet my Ss where they are, but I can't do the work for them.
— April Ludgate (@eyeneedcaffeine) March 13, 2023
Imagine that you just got a new job. This job pays well and promises huge potential for growth within the company. You likely have values about hard work, giving back, and teamwork, so you’re sure this is a good fit.
But what if you discovered your new coworkers worked 10% of the hours you did but still got your exact same salary and benefits?
What if these equally paid coworkers made you unable to get your work done and mouthed off to your boss, all with no consequences from HR?
What if you talked to HR about you not having what you need for success and they said, “Sorry, but our hands are tied. Corporate said we can’t fire any more people, and really, it’s best for them to stay in the same office with you. We don’t want them missing valuable office experience.”
What would you do? Would you still work just as hard to move up in that company trusting their leadership, or would you, too, join your coworkers in coasting? How quickly would your values deteriorate once you saw that your job didn’t care whether you did the work or not?
The kids have figured out the system. They know they’ll be moved up to the next grade even if they don’t attend summer school. They know they won’t face consequences for their behavior (many schools have banned office referrals altogether). This generation isn’t bad; the system has failed them, policy by policy, in shifting the onus so that the only person with responsibility in a child’s education is the teacher. What else would that result in other than a teacher shortage and a checked-out generation?
They don’t see a reason to engage with the future we’ve prepared for them.
Everything happening in the culture and the economy works against education. The wealth divide, the distraction of technology, the denigration of expertise, college costs turning kids off, the unlivable wages in half the states, and demonizing teachers for political points.
— Phoenix West (@turbittj) March 13, 2023
In a functioning system, if you asked students why they value education, they might say things like:
“I want to help people.”
“I want to make a lot of money.”
“I want to make the world better.”
But in 2023, many students in our schools are dealing with the following:
- Existential depression knowing our world may very well be unlivable in their lifetime
- Many careers in helper roles (teachers, nurses, nonprofit spheres) not offering a living wage when you calculate in student debt
- The stress of school shootings causing a “cascade of collective traumas,” according to the American Psychological Association
- Teachers being vilified as “groomers” by a small but vocal minority
- The very phones that offer them connection are also steadily chipping away at their mental health
Can you blame kids for checking out? I don’t.
So … what can we do?
Teachers have been asking the government for what kids really need for years. Stronger infrastructure supporting communities. More counselors and mental health professionals. Smaller class sizes. Measures to make teaching a more attractive profession. That’s expensive. It’s way cheaper to just demand that teachers fill in the gaps.
What’s the answer? I don’t know. For years I’ve written that the answer is voting people into office who will fix all of this with legislation, but I don’t know anymore.
The embarrassment of being the country with the highest GDP and test scores below the global average hasn’t been enough to move policy.
More than 400 children dying in school shootings in the last decade hasn’t been enough to move policy, or at least policy aggressive enough to curb the steep uptick in school shootings.
A crushing teacher shortage hasn’t been enough to move policy (except to lower the standards to become a teacher).
Honestly, I think the only thing that will spur the country to action in saving public ed is an absolutely massive teacher strike or student walkout.
Or a catastrophic robot insurrection that demands unprecedented global cooperation and unity in a way that totally restructures our values around education, healthcare, human rights, and the environment.
A girl can dream.
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