I’ve noticed a recent trend among idealist educators. They stand ready to accept the blame for educational failures and say we will accept no excuses. We can educate every child, whether they want it or not.
I refuse to share in their self flagellation or their whistling in the dark optimism, though I am by nature pretty optimistic. I’m going to relate a recent experience that will explain why.
I read Soldier Mom, by Alice Mead, to my seventh grade students. In this story, the mother is an Army Reservist who gets called to active duty during the Persian Gulf War. She leaves behind a boy friend, Jake, and their toddler son, Andrew. She also leaves in Jake’s care her eleven year old daughter by a previous marriage, Jasmyn.
Jasmyn, who is the main character, plays on the school basketball team and is the captain. Were she to give up the captain spot, it would go to the girl she and her friends dislike the most. Now that mother is gone, someone has to pick up Andrew from the day care before it closes. Unfortunately, it closes before Jake gets off work. This means Jasmyn will have to leave basketball practice 15 minutes early to get the child.
The problem is, she cannot leave practice 15 minutes early and still be captain of the team. Remember, the biggest problem isn’t that she would no longer be captain, but that the position would go to a girl she dislikes. Since the family dynamic has drastically changed, sacrifices will have to be made. The boyfriend has to make some of them, but he expects the girl to make some too. I asked the kids if it was expecting too much, under the circumstances, to ask the girl to make a sacrifice. The overwhelming response was that a teenager should not have to make any sacrifices.
I went around the room, hoping to find at least one of the kids that would recognize that tough times require sacrifices on the part of each family member. Not a one. Not from the Christian kids, not from those I would consider more mature, not from a boy, nor from a girl. Not a one.
The prevailing attitude among my students was that teenagers should never have to do anything unpleasant or difficult. And, you don’t have to be in the system very long to realize this attitude, though not stated as bluntly, is fostered by a generation of modern parents.
This attitude carries into the educational process itself. As long as the process can be fun and exciting, they will participate, but if it becomes unpleasant, they’re through. I talk to a lot of teachers who agree that the number of kids who simply do nothing is growing each year. I’m talking here about the numbers who are not willing to do even the minimum amount needed to pass. In way too many families, the consequences of doing nothing are now easier to deal with than the unpleasantness of doing the school work.
I think if you talked to coaches, you would also find the number of kids willing to do the truly hard work of excelling at sports is also diminishing.
This attitude is working its way up the system, so I was not surprised to read in the April 8, 2005, edition of the Jonesboro Sun, that, “A new study by three professors at Arkansas State University at Jonesboro suggests that time spent studying for class may be declining at an alarming rate.
“Today, college students spend less than half the time that faculty members believe is required to learn and academically succeed.”
Deep down, politicians, school administrators, and even idealistic educators know the problem doesn’t lie with teachers, who are as good as they have ever been. However, they can’t put pressure on the public, so they keep doing the one thing they can do: put pressure on the teachers. As a teacher from an earlier generation, I have this word of warning for educational policy makers. You may find that when teaching for a new generation of teachers becomes more unpleasant than the alternatives, they too will quit.