From a February workshop by Ellen Shrager

I attended Ellen’s workshop today sponsored by the Arizona Language Association. Ellen’s topic was the management of the new wave of students accompanied by the new wave of parents. She presented an overview of the sort of things teachers did not have to deal with so much in the past but which now loom large on our screens.

Ellen gave a nod to me as someone who questions this notion that students today are that different from students of yore. I thought it interesting that she designated the year 1995-6 as the Year of Change. More on that later. She gave specifics – more on that later, too – such as children fitting in through consumerism i.e. what you own defines you.

Dealing with students and with parents both requires first of all compassion. She stressed the need for love and compassion for people, otherwise you come across as simply judgmental. But she was divertingly funny in admitting to the desire to strangle, expell from the plant, or, worst of all, display sarcasm toward certain students. Yet she always related affecting stories of kids and parents desperate for an answer to the storm of demands accompanied by uncertainties in a new world. Underneath the smart remarks and hoodies are living beings entrusted to us and they really can perform for us if we unlock their potential.

So Ellen certainly gave us plenty to think about and helped fill out this eternal argument we have on flteach about “kids these days”. But she also gave great techniques for eliciting that performance. For example, being ready for the extra kid or the new kid; dealing with the kid who is never chosen for group; helping the family drowning in crisis, stress, and dysfunction.

On a walk we took around the grounds of Rio Salado Community College in Tempe, the site of the workshop, Ellen had the nerve to suggest she did not engage in counseling. Reminding her I had been a counselor (in a mental health and social service framework) for 20 years before becoming a teacher, I assured her her interventions were definitely counseling, counseling very much needed by parents who cannot get family counseling unless someone is a drug addict or criminal. Many school counselors and psychologists are inundated with scholarship and college and career duties and so it falls to the classroom teacher to recognize need and meet it even while teaching an academic subject. It is clear that her emphasis on limit setting, providing boundaries, and meeting every challenge with love and caring tinged ever-so-slightly with disbelief in people’s capacity to make bad decisions serves as a model for other teachers.

Re my quarrel with teachers on the List who complain about “kids these days”: when I talk with these people face to face, we usually work out what we are saying and come to much more agreement than dissent. There are times when I resent very much the attitudes I see on the List and react strongly to them. That sets others off who find my objections jejune in the sense of lacking maturity. I can understand the latter reaction since it is obvious that some things have changed over the last 50 years. I can even understand or at least empathize with the former reaction b/c I also have faced snotty kids and unresponsive admins.

Where I question these reactions is in the following areas: I have taught for 20 years in one school and subbed one year in a number of others. I have taught social studies early on and subbed in a variety of classes. What I see is a variety of students; some fit the description of the “kids these days” crowd and most do not. I simply do not recognize the kids these teachers say are now the norm in the classrooms I’ve been in. I MUST get my reaction to the Ben Stein monologue onto this List b/c he exemplifies the sneering contempt for young people with its concomitant glorification of people of the older generation.

My own generation goes back to schooling in the 40s and 50s (I celebrate my 50th h.s. reunion in Oct). I can cite names of kids back then who fit the profile of the students teachers now designate as typical of their Generation Whatever students. And I went to 6 different schools in 5 states, so my environment wasn’t monochrome. It’s hard to think of a “type” we complain of today that wasn’t there in my day.

But what cracks me up is when a 37 year old teacher tells me the kids now don’t have the work ethic that her generation did. What??? She was in school less than 20 years ago. Is she saying there has been a major social change affecting all students in just that short frame of time? Unless you attribute the change to one item, like IPods, that seems impossible. It’s like the people who think we can evolve biologically in one or two generations. Ellen did designate a particular year. We should explore that more.

But it gets better…. I’ve told the story often on this List of the kid returning from his freshman year of college, peering into the classroom and shaking his head, saying, “Kids these days”. He was in that classroom less than 6 months earlier and yet he swears kids have changed in that half year!

What is going on here? Part of the difficulty in assessing it is the teacher culture. If you don’t go along with the venting and ask for a little evidence, you are highly resented for not supporting your fellows. You must be on the side of the kids and their parents, like those horrible counselors. It’s like the complainants don’t want to take a clear, honest look at what’s happening but just to brag on how mature they were at that age and complain about how terrible kids are now. And if you interfere with this, you are destroying their therapeutic moment.

Ellen Shrager diagnoses the situation and gives us some remedies. If she comes to your area, be sure to attend. You’ll come away with ideas and inspiration.
Pat Barrett

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