Teachers – How You Turned Out is Irrelevant!

I have conversations regularly with people about the state of education. Some people want to understand the problems educators face, others want to hear my opinions about what we can do to fix things, others (and these are the most interesting) just want to have enlightened discussions about pedagogy.

In my experience, one idea almost always comes up regardless of the main topic of the discussion. And it usually starts something like this: “Fine, but it wasn’t that way when we were kids, and we turned out fine!”

While often not the only argument, this seems to be the argument that most teachers have the hardest time getting past. They will hold to that idea strongly, and when you attempt to question it, they usually just lower and shake their head, not listening to my reply. Heck, I used to use the argument myself during my first couple years of teaching. “When I was in school, no one got extended time on tests!” “When I was in school, we didn’t get guided notes, the teacher talked and we listened!” “When I was in school, we couldn’t turn in anything more than one day late, and even then it was half credit!” “When I was in school, a 93% was a B! Now we can’t even give a zero?!?”

While all of those are more-or-less true statements (though arguably viewed through rose-colored glasses), they Do. Not. Matter.

The truth is, yes, things were different when we were in school. And they were different from that when our parents were in school. And they were even more different still when our grandparents were in school. The “we did it, they should” argument is akin to walking uphill both ways in the snow or screaming at kids for walking on your lawn: unhelpful rhetoric.

Our students now grow up in a world that is simultaneously darker and more wondrous than the world I grew up in. Turn on CNN for five minutes, and you will see the darkest parts of the human condition, on display for everyone to see. Turn on your local news and you will almost definitely find a story about a mother doing something terrible to their child, whether it is as simple as abandonment or as insidious as this mother who helped her partner raper her 15 year old daughter (which is the most disgusting thing I have ever read; WARNING: link is NSFL (not safe for life)). Just the fact that you probably didn’t scoff at the statement “as simple as abandonment” should tell you something.

On the other hand, these students grow up in a world full of wonders that we could barely have imagined when we were their age. Simply think about how much better (or at least different) your life is because of your smartphone. You have access to nearly every piece of information ever discovered, you can reach out to a hundred friends at a moment’s notice in at least 5 different ways, and the concept of being “bored” is absurd with a window to thousands of different kinds of entertainment, and millions of choices in each category.

Further, we are in a time of complete social change as a country. When I was a kid, the most common and effective insult was to call someone gay, or use the F-word that means bundle of sticks. Now, while I certainly can’t argue such insults don’t occur, they are generally not accepted by fellow students. Many students in my school feel comfortable walking hand-in-hand with another girl through the courtyard. That would definitely not happened when I was a kid.

My point is simple: The world these students grow up in isn’t the world you grew up in. Sure, when you were in school, almost no one got extended time. Also, we weren’t bombarded by the worst the world had to offer, 24 hours a day on 30 different news stations. True, we were expected to listen to a teacher and take our own notes, but that teacher didn’t have to compete with full-HD screens in every kid’s hand that could connect to every other student in the room as well as games, movies, and music in a package easily concealed under a desk. We didn’t get to turn in our assignments all the way up to the end of the quarter. Of course, our assignments were entirely completed on a piece of paper with a pencil, not through researching on the internet, making video projects, or sharing ideas with students across the world through social media. And yes, a 93% was a B, but we also didn’t expect 98% of our students to graduate, and nearly 70% to go to college.

So the next time you find yourself annoyed at the way things are in education, or the way things are going, look into those thoughts. Have discussions with passionate and brilliant people. Debate and question everything. But whatever you do, don’t let yourself believe that the old way is the better way simply because you turned out OK. How you turned out is irrelevant, and complaining about it certainly isn’t helping.