Reflective Teaching Day 17: Challenges in Education

What do you think is the most challenging issue in education today?

Wow, what a tough question! Where to begin? Funding? Politics? The movement of decisionmaking from local boards to state or even federal committees that are out of touch with real education?

All of those are problems, and the list could grow and grow, but I don’t think that any of those things is the biggest issue in education. A dedicated, hardworking, good teacher can overcome most of those things and bring about learning despite all the things that are thrown at (or taken away from) him or her. I think the biggest challenge in education today is attitude. Student attitudes, parent attitudes, school personnel attitudes, politician attitudes. We all look at education very, very differently, but one thing is the same: it seems to me that very few people really believe in education.

Of course, there are many exceptions to that rule. I would say that most teachers (and probably most administrators) are exceptions. We wouldn’t be here, day in and day out, working our you-know-whats off if we didn’t believe in what we were doing. On the other hand, there are many teachers and administrators who have become disillusioned with the system, the students, or some aspect of education, and they fall right into the category of “bad attitude” about education.

I think part of the problem is that, from a young age, students are groomed to think of going to school as a bad thing. I don’t think it’s intentional. Parents may make offhand comments about how much they hated school, or how awful school was for them and children, especially young children, pick up on it, and carry that attitude for the rest of their lives. Or perhaps parents didn’t finish school, or have commented that “nothing they learned in school is useful for me now” or that their job doesn’t relate to what they learned in school. Anyway, you can see the change. Little kids tend to really like going to school. Until middle elementary anyway, and then they figure it out “Hey, this is work and I’d rather play.”

But ultimately, I don’t think that’s the attitude that’s hurting us. The right teacher, with the right kid, with the right activity can turn that attitude around. There’s a bigger problem out there.

Ah yes. Entitlement. The idea that a particular student deserves a particular grade by sheer weight of…I don’t know, character? Family prestige?. Not every student, and not every family, but that’s a big one for me.

But the biggest attitude problem that I come up against on a daily basis is simple work ethic. Not that students don’t want to earn their grade, or even that they don’t want to work hard. It’s that, when it comes to school work, some of my students don’t seem to know how to work hard. The ability to solve a problem without first being told how to solve it is something that many of my students seem to lack. The idea of looking up more than a single word at a time does not occur to my Spanish students. The thought that, perhaps a dictionary is not infallible does not enter their minds.

I don’t know if this comes from being able to look up anything and everything at any hour of the day, or if it’s something that’s always existed that I just didn’t know about before, but some days I’m astounded, and, based on conversations at lunch time, my fellow educators are as well.

But here’s where the issue with teacher attitude comes in. Teachers sometimes just say “These kids don’t know how to think!” or “They can’t read critically!” or “Why didn’t they learn this in X grade?” and they throw their hands up and dumb down the material and change question types until the kids get it, or complain that their students aren’t capable until they’re blue in the face. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for differentiation and giving every student the opportunity to succeed and show their knowledge, but I think we need to, first, meet the kids where they are and then, if need be, drag them kicking and screaming to where they should be.

If that means teaching them how to read critically in 10th grade science, then so be it. If that means that, when they get to 8th grade English, we have to review what a noun is, or when they get to Spanish 1 we have to make sure they know what the subject of a sentence is (this took all year last year!), then that’s what we have to do. Education is not something that happens in 1st grade and then 2nd grade and then 3rd grade, it’s something that happens continuously, for a whole lifetime.

Is it easy? No. Does it mean that sometimes things may have to change from year to year? Maybe. In a perfect education system, in a perfect world, it wouldn’t be necessary. But this world and (at least in my experience) the education system is far from perfect. And so we, like our students, must really learn the meaning of hard work. But if we just complain about how little our students understand and keep either A) making it so easy they don’t have to try or B) failing everyone, then we are doing our students and society as a whole a huge disservice. If students haven’t learned how to think critically by the time they get to us, and we don’t do anything about it before they leave us then we as teachers should rethink why we’re in the classroom to begin with.

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