Why I'm grateful to be a teacher in this generation
We teachers are very tempted to employ the “back in my day, we did things differently” tactic with our students. Student zoning out in class? Tough, because back in my day you either paid attention or you missed out. Didn’t know what the homework was? Too bad, because back in my day you picked up the phone and called someone to find out.
Embedded within these old-school responses are morsels of wisdom, which ideally can be transmitted to our students with love and patience. But, when the tactic is used in a standoffish manner, as it is above, it only accomplishes antagonism.
For the majority of the time, the phrase “back in my day” includes within it a degree of longing and yearning for when kids, teachers, parents and the system were different than they are now. Coupled with that sense of longing may be a stealthy side serving of despair or resentment toward the current state of affairs.
Let’s flip the script. This Thanksgiving season, I thought it would be productive to write about why we can be grateful to be educators in this time, and not back in the day. Here’s a pop quiz for you, and don’t think, just answer: Would you rather be a teacher then or now?
I say now, and here’s why.
This reason alone can make the resounding case that now is better. Here are a slew of technological entrées that we as educators feast on, which I cannot imagine working without:
Online grading systems so that all parties — teachers, students and parents — know exact student standings at all times.
The ability to enter grades into my smartphone while working at Starbucks.
Giving assessments on tablets and smartphones, which are instantly graded and input without any Scantron headaches.
Smartboard capabilities for color-enhanced student engagement opportunities and multimedia delivery.
May I scream from the rooftops “THE INTERNET!” and its infinite well of resources and information?
Learning-management systems and online-class pages to encapsulate full curricula, which are actually generated by students.
Indispensable services like Turnitin, Crash Course, TED-Ed and many others.
Digital textbooks that don’t waste obscene amounts of paper, making our students resemble mini-military forces toting tons of textbook gear.
The very fact that you’re reading this article so seamlessly, in your continuous journey to improve your pedagogy, is a testament to how technology is at the heart of such advancement.
I concede that technology has brought its share of genuine challenges, including reduced attention capabilities and slowed social progression (i.e., students’ faces buried in their phones, oblivious to human social cues). But let’s not forget that this very technology, which admittedly hinders so many, also elevates so many.
It gives the shy, introverted student a beacon to express himself, perhaps through music, video or online forums. It equips our students with information in order to question any fallacies thrown at them, in or out of school walls. Sure, I see problems on a daily basis when it comes to technology. I would much rather deal with these problems though, while simultaneously enjoying all the progress that comes with them.
With full respect to our predecessors, I simply cannot imagine being armed with only iconic tools like chalk, blackboards and those fear-invoking forest green gradebooks, in all their gridded glory. I had the opportunity to begin my career using those things, and I certainly don’t miss the stomach-dropping feeling I had when I misplaced one! Thank you, cloud, wherever you are.
I am exceedingly grateful that the younger generations unquestionably have become more tolerant with each passing year. When I was in high school, I did not even know what “coming out” was, let alone the existence of National Coming Out day. Society is in the process of addressing the still-present taboo of people in the LGBTQ community. Even my own level of awareness grows in real time; I only learned of the Q while writing this piece.
Pop culture, television, cinema and music have celebrated tolerance, and naturally, since our students are the most avid consumers of such media, they have become considerably affected by it. Our own president has voiced agreement over same-sex marriage, a position never before declared by any president in U.S. history. What strikes me most though is President Obama’s explanation as to why he chose to be in favor. He said that it would never occur to his children that gay people should not have the right to marry. In other words, it is the children who can lead us to a more tolerant society, and the ideal environment to foster such acceptance is within our schools. We see evidence of this transcendence through the proliferation of student clubs, many of which promote awareness for a multitude of minority groups.
Issues of race, religion and family background are other arenas in our schools that showcase the student trend towards a more enlightened existence. I clearly remember how rock star Lenny Kravitz’s interracial background was a much bigger deal to my childhood generation than rapper Drake’s similar background is to teenagers now. And with the aid of technology as a voice and platform, more students feel comfortable to anonymously or openly question their religious beliefs, or engage their parents in a more complex dialogue about their upbringing. This is the reason that our best teachers can explain their policies clearly and logically, because “my way or the highway” just doesn’t fly anymore, upon considering all the access to information and support our students possess.
In line with tolerance, our premiere school leaders are thankfully fostering conversations about the real issues that matter the most. Finally, we’re attacking long-standing child-to-teen afflictions head on, such as bullying, suicide, stress, sleep deprivation, texting while driving, outdated teaching models, high-stakes testing and over-testing, and multiple learning styles (i.e., you’re not “dumb” if you don’t understand it right away). To their credit, our past generation colleagues spearheaded monumentally critical conversations as well, including such topics as drunk driving, sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy and divorce.
But we’re going way deeper now. Before, you did the math in class because that’s just what you’re supposed to do. Now, even though it’s still what we’re supposed to do, we can openly discuss whether each component of the curriculum is the right course of action, for our school and for our population. The results of these conversations have led to revolutionary advancements in our system, from project-based learning, to the flipped and online learning models, adaptive and differentiated teaching and dynamic lesson planning that includes a focus on the various ways students learn through their multiple senses.
We are hypersensitive to cyber-bullying, hazing, suicidal ideology and other detrimental behavior, as we should be. Some students can still be unconscionably mean, but the difference is that now we discuss the phenomenon, hopefully including an acknowledgement that those mean students must be in silent agony themselves, rather than chalk it up to “kids will be kids” and brush the underlying factors aside. I for one felt entirely alone while being bullied as a kid, so I’m elated to see improved awareness and support systems in place today.
Teaching is still the same as it always was and always will be
When teachers-to-be first fantasize about their upcoming role, the initial images they play in their minds have been timelessly re-perpetuated throughout the generations. They think of getting through to young minds and molding inspired learners and citizens, or of their passion for their subject, or of making a difference in the world. These ideals have always been the bedrock of education, regardless of the generation we find ourselves in. I am at once thankful and intrigued by that notion.
I am thankful because it is an honor to hold hands with every teacher before and after me, joined by our exact same overall objectives, unchanged over time. And I am intrigued, because while our underlying goals are identical, our methodologies are starkly different and in constant flux. This means that while the act of teaching can and must change, the point of teaching is still in service to others. You must love students and you must love helping them grow. These are enduring principles I gained directly from my favorite teachers when I was a student. In this regard then, I can gratefully say that back in my day, we did things quite the same. Happy Thanksgiving.
(This piece was published in ASCD Smartbrief Education.)