Review of the article The Overwhelmed Generation in FL Annals

I wrote this in July, referring, presumably, to the July issue of FL Annals, the ACTFL organ.

Having read the excellent summary of the article The Overwhelmed Generation that was written on flteach, I scurried to find my recently arrived copy and read it. I was thrilled to see anyone dealing directly with the issue of people coming into the profession of foreign language teaching. Moreover, the basis for the perceptions seemed much more solid than the usual reveries about the good old days; the author had notes and evaluations and products of former student teachers and current ones.

This author, Leslie Schrier, sees the current crop of students as significantly different. Right off the bat, I question this. This is the same argument I have with teachers on several listservs for fl teachers: who are we looking at? Schrier offers several examples of stunning behavior, stunning to those of us of an older generation at least. However, she does not say much about students who apparently passed through the program quite successfully.

Another commentator on the article is himself an instructor of a fl methods class and mentions he has similar problems and slips in that he has more students. Hmmm. That sounds like Krashen’s description of the German professors happy that they have more students but complaining that the quality is not as high. Could this simply be a matter of more people wanting into the profession (or into advanced German) but not having the characteristics of those stalwarts of yore who gutted through course work out of a special dedication? Do we want more candidates for teaching or clones of our heroic fl teachers of the past?

So let me comment on the article as I read through it again. This is a long one b/c there will be several asides as I go along. I cannot give the context b/c it would make this entry impossibly long, so you might want to go to the university library and get a copy of FL Annals if you don’t belong to ACTFL.

The definition of mental health the author gives (she seems to think these attitudinal and behavioral issues stem from stress and psychological problems rather than being responses to changes in the culture and society) includes a mention of a person having a positive belief in himself. While I agree with it, it certainly contradicts the frequent imprecations in fl teacher listservs against self-concept as an important factor in personality development. The meaningfulness of existence is cited as a component of good mental health but there is no mention in the article of religious affiliation of the student teachers. The terms for what the author describes are alienation and anomie. These concepts and constructs must be kept firmly in mind as we discuss not only this article but for anyone who reads some of my other blog entries. For now I will assume the reader’s basic sociology class in college taught him those constructs.

Stress can be better tolerated by persons with a greater tolerance of ambiguity b/c it allows them to deal with normal events that frustrate. I find this tolerance to be lacking not only in many students but in many of my peers as well. Their frustration quickly turns to anger and resentment which they express through constant, negative griping. Nothing new here though. The defensive strategies teachers under stress resort to are the source of a lot of the teachers’ problems even as the stress on them is acknowledged. Again, I am not sure I see anything terribly new here but at this point the author is just discussing burn-out in general, not linked specifically to this generation.

A specific mental illness cited by Schrier is depression. The other items listed: sexual assault, suicidal ideation and substance abuse , have all increased dramatically. But nowhere does the author mention the huge increase in persons attending college and the massive campaign to get people to talk openly about such problems, admit to them, report them, and for professionals to document and describe them. My own 10 year experience in a mental health center permitted me to observe, as one example, the diagnosis of bipolar (previously known as manic-depressive psychosis) go from one or two in a population right out of the psychiatric hospital to a general diagnosis applied to the bulk of the patients seen. My first bipolar diagnosed case was so unusual I was given a special lecture on it by the consulting psychiatrist. Mental health diagnosis is highly subject to, there’s no other word for it, fads, conditioned largely by what insurance companies will reimburse for. So I think the author’s mental health tack is highly suspect.

Admittedly, the author recognizes the role of willingness to admit to problems and states that medications allow many students to make it through who would in the past have dropped out. Also, and this is hugely important to me, the author does not use demeaning language in discussing these student teachers. This is one of the tendencies that “turns me off” to much of the discussion of students on listservs. The other and most salient is the massive generalizing to the whole student body when I see these problem students as making up only a small proportion of the student body. There’s always one in every class but nothing to warrant labeling a whole generation.

In fact, it would be interesting to talk about teachers on one of these listservs the way the teachers talk about students and see what the reaction would be. The author lists teacher stressors but little mention is made of tactics that combat the stress other than negative ones like alienation, withdrawal and apathy. Positive ones exist. Most teachers find positive ways to combat the stress. Will these student teachers? No way to know from this article. Surely the author could have followed up on some.

As an aside, I note that the author cites excessive testing as a major stressor for teachers………. from an article written in 1983!!!

Poor relationships between teachers and students were the best predictor of stress and yet I find it exceedingly difficult to get past the complaints on the listservs about students, parents, and administrators and get to how to develop satisfying relationships with students. The anger on the part of the teachers is inhibiting.

HEY!! This is germane. I just went downstairs to do something and my wife said our granddaughter had been grounded for losing part of a game at school. Just the part she lost was worth $60.00. This child is SIX years old. What is going on that she is held responsible for an expensive game? This fits perfectly with the world which Schrier describes her student teachers growing up in. At six, I lost jackets and hats and gloves and I was WEARING them! BTW, the same granddaughter also has her own cell phone.

What I found fascinating was Schrier’s use of the term “conservative practice” in referring to her own work on student and teacher retention. She apparently equates “conservative practice” with what I would call non-communicative teaching and blames it for poor student retention and challenges to programs. Interesting. She also found that teachers of Russian and other LCTLs had the highest departure rate. In most respects, my school was a typical Am h.s. but my Russian status was enhanced by support from the local religious community and my decades long – even before I became a teacher – membership in the local Am Assoc. for Teachers of Slavic & East European Languages.

Schrier also refers to her own work in describing how failure to match the local culture can lead to severe classroom mgt problems. My own study of Black culture in the classroom and my experience with Hispanic culture supports this view. My school lost many teachers who made it known they could not stand the Hispanic kids. The view of the teachers who left was a simple-minded “they’re bigots”, rather than looking at possible points of conflict between cultures. After all, we cannot get teachers to examine objectively the culture of contemporary students without their demeaning the students.

Speaking of demeaning students, the only evidence of this I saw in the article was in a quote where the author of “Tough Love Manifesto for Professors” (the title alone tells you where he stands) opines, “… their future employers will not treat them like little geniuses but expect them to actually work without complaining….. we do our students no favors by letting them leave university with so little knowledge and so much attitude.”

Other than that snide and demeaning quote, this article shows remarkable restraint and respect in the face of behavior that is both puzzling and infuriating to those of us raised in a very different environment (more comments on this in my other entries on “Basics” and “World View”) That has been one of the biggest stumbling-blocks to reasoned discussion on listservs – the tendency of teachers to speak disparagingly of young people.

Digging into teachers’ self-concept, reflective thought, understanding of their own processes and interactions is terribly difficult with people who are defensive or who have been taught that revealing emotions is a sign of weakness and sniveling.Denial of distress is a major aspect of several subcultures in this country. Think Prairie Home Companion’s batchelor Norwegian farmers and the Iowa housewife floating down the river in the upper story of her house saying, “Oh, we’ll be fine. Donchu worry ’bout us none now.” An open display of disappointment and distress is frowned upon but complaining about others’ shortcomings is acceptable. So what we may get is a kind of projection: teachers complaining about kids not living up to standards when the teachers may be thinking that of themselves but don’t want to appear to “be feeling sorry for” themselves.

(We’re to p. 287 now). Teacher safety, teacher exhaustion, teacher anxiety….. these issues I have seen and dealt with in several settings. Sometimes, due to the mindset described in the immediately above paragraph, these were revealed only after some years of working with a teacher and gaining their confidence. The professional self-efficacy proffered as an antidote is aided by belonging to professional organizations. The listservs I’ve tied this blog to are an outlet and source of support for a lot of teachers. All these support factors require an input of time, energy, and money, which may appear to overwhelming for the teacher to avail himself of the support.

The author stresses that multiple factors lead to teacher mental illness, burnout, etc. My own cousin, an elementary school principle, tried working in my large urban district and left after a short but very successful stint. He took his family back to small-town Ohio where his kids could all make the team, everyone knew everyone else, and life was much less hectic. I just talked to him the other day; he’s back in AZ but post-retirement and working as an elementary school principal but his kids are grown. He handled stress that way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *