A long time ago, in a different version of myself, I was a high school history teacher. I taught a host of social studies subjects, including every iteration of World History possible. I quit teaching when the combination of children/pay/allowable sick leave failed to provide me with a sustainable job.
Recently, however, I had the opportunity to serve as a long term substitute for a suddenly ill teacher who was unable to begin the school year. And so I walked into a classroom as the teacher for the first time since before Instagram was invented. And it was weird.
Not weird to be in a classroom or to be teaching…those elements were like slipping into an old favorite robe again. I grew up, quite literally as the daughter of two teachers, surrounded by cement block walls, linoleum floors, and the hum of activity in a school. And although I’d only ever walked into this particular building for the first time the previous week, it was deeply familiar. Comfortable. Easy.
Teaching was easy. Remembering how to manage a classroom was easy. Even learning a new grading system/student database program, what to do with Google Classroom, where to find online textbooks and supplemental materials, and that teachers now use their personal cell phones to grade multiple choice tests (with no supplemental income to pay for those phones, I might add) was easy. Easy in that most pleasantly satisfying version of the word….smooth, rhythmic, warm like towels from the dryer and hot tea held close to your chest.
I overshare all of that to say that I have no bad feelings about being in a classroom–I’m not the old teacher cliche who vociferously complains about education today claiming, “I’d still be teaching if it weren’t for the kids!” And yet I did come away….concerned. Not BY the kids, but rather FOR them. They are not at all OK.
Students are Overwhelmed by Noise
Do you recall the movie Office Space? One of Peter’s complaints was that every time he did something wrong, eight different people told him about it. High school students in our community, an affluent suburb of Atlanta, have 6-7 teachers. They have 2-3 more club sponsors, coaches, or advisers. They each have a counselor and an administrator assigned to them. There is a place in the library/student center where electronic devices issued by the school (Microsoft Surface Pros in our case) can be fixed and there is another adult in charge of that. Upperclassmen tend to also have jobs with another 2-3 bosses. If you’re keeping track that means that a student has about 15 different non-parent adults giving them instructions and feedback with 15 different communication styles, methods of dispersing information, and varying degrees of general human kindness.
In Office Space, Peter says, “that keeps you working just hard enough not to get fired.” The teenage version of that is working just hard enough to keep adults off your back.
Furthermore, some teachers post assignments on Google Classroom, some on a shared space on Microsoft 365, and some on a program called Planbook. Some use remind codes to send assignment due date messages, some use GroupMe to relate details about where and when club activities or meetings are happening. And, of course, there are QR codes for special events. For a student to be sure that he knows what responsibilities he has coming up, often as soon as tomorrow, he’d need to check a possible 3-4 locations for every class, club, sport, or job he has.
He also has Instragram, Snapchat, VSCO, TikTok and probably something else I don’t know about yet. Then there’s a weird farm game app where you feed pigs? I’m not sure why. And they’ve also just discovered MarioKart.
Hey, PSA for the non-teenager set: a “VSCO Girl” (pronounced “visco”) is like this generation’s version of a Valley Girl. It means an affluent young woman with a particular style that likes to post pics of herself using the editing app VSCO because the filters make her look cute. She wears Birkentsocks, giant t-shirts, scrunchies, and carries a water bottle for hydration, especially the Hydroflask. She’s super into nature and may suddenly go hiking at any moment, which is why she needs the $30 water bottle at school. She’d also like to “save the turtles.” Her “edgier” counterpart, egirl, has black nail polish and wears band t-shirts like Nirvana instead of ones from Vineyard Vines. So, basically, no matter what, she’s from the 90s but has no idea that’s what she’s doing. PSA over.
Hey, PSA for the under-30 set: PSA stands for Public Service Announcement. The government used to fund advertising geared at making us better people, but they’ve apparently given up. Which explains a lot about the continued allowance of the President’s use of twitter and why your generation vapes/smokes. You’re killing yourselves.
Anyway, back to why kids are broken because of the noise.
Our students don’t have the bandwidth to actually learn. They are churning their arms and legs in a chaotic version of treading water to stay on top of whatever surprises might be lurking in their phones, on the classroom boards, or in emails auto-generated for their parents and poised to bombard them when they get home. They basically feel like they have no idea what’s going on in their classes a decent amount of the time, but if they throw enough things at the wall some of it sticks and they might magically get a decent grade. They have no idea why.
When students have free time, they tend to fall down the hole of social media, YouTube and Netflix. They retreat. They hide. It is too much in a world filled with noise and surrounded by distractions to just…think.
It’s as though if left with their own thoughts for too long, the screaming paging alarm of something that is probably due tomorrow or next period or in the next 5 minutes demands a response with a level of urgency that ranks somewhere between burning skyscraper and gushing water in the living room.
We can blame them for their “phone addictions” all we want, but we handed them the phones, put all their homework online, and demanded that they stay on top of schoolwork, get involved, and “make friends.” We’ve taught them to believe that time margin means you’re being lazy. The idea of mental or spiritual margin seems to be an idea that’s never occurred to them at all. And that’s breaking them from the inside out.
Read Part 2 for ideas to help our teens cope with all this noise….