Lest We Forget: School Sucks

It’s a shame that age and maturity have removed teachers from the agony of being a student. In all likelihood, a vast majority of teacher faux pas could be avoided, if only teachers remembered just how hard it really is to be a kid.

Relative to the kids it serves; the typical elementary school environment is staggering.  How many typical eight- year olds have a one-piece desk in their bedroom? Homes don’t have desks, because they’re uncomfortable and serve only one purpose – sitting still – inherently alien to most elementary aged school children. Scheduling in allotted time for movement is certainly beneficial to the learner, but even inmates in prison get time “in the yard.” It’s the restrictive moments between recess and free play that make elementary school difficult.

Of course “not moving” is perhaps only slightly less difficult than the other common chore demanded of school children…not talking. If you were to visit a close friend in their home and witnessed them insist that their eight year old make minimal noise and sit still in a one-piece desk as you talked, you’d probably find new friends. Of course, at least then they’d be prepared for the mountain of homework we send home with them, as if it’s actually helping.

Additionally, the pressure of “making friends” is often overlooked by teachers. We sometimes take for granted the ease of talking with strangers that comes with adulthood. We understand social norms and can take cues from surroundings as to how to behave. These skills are often lacking in early grade schoolers, who may be more concerned with when/where to go to the bathroom than with learning to read.

The pain doesn’t end in Middle School, in fact it probably gets worse. When we think of bullying, we often think of shoving kids against lockers, calling them fat or slapping books out of their hands -except the insults are far worse than simply “fat”. Some students openly joke about wishing other students would die, or discuss obscene topics with colorful language that would make a sailor blush. The use of the slur “gay” has reached epidemic proportions in FAR TOO MANY middle schools, providing a double edged sword: cutting those terrified by the social implications of being viewed as gay while simultaneously destroying the childhood of those still coming to grips with their own sexuality who may actually be homosexual. Regardless of your politics on this issue, recognize that it’s having a damming effect on straight teens, gay teens and the culture at large.  

We tend to forget that social exclusion is passive aggressive bullying. We’ve never known or have long since forgotten the feeling of being cast aside for wearing the wrong shoes. We don’t remember the awkwardness that came from simply walking past “the popular kids”.  And while we as teachers are thinking about Algebra or the Civil War, our students are most assuredly thinking about the boy or the girl across the room.

And now, courtesy of texting, Facebook and other social media tools, the intoxicating drug that is adolescent peer influence is now delivered with an I.V. straight to the blood stream, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Think you can protect kids from it? Guess again – students who don’t participate in these activities are further socially excluded. Better to teach them how to live in this world rather than try and protect them from it.

God forbid these clearly disengaged students don’t learn material the first time, for if they do fail, we’re likely to pepper them with questions about why they didn’t learn it or demand they “try harder”. For some kids, simply surviving this social hell is hard work enough.

All of this is not to excuse high school students, who while being bombarded with stories of “how easy today kids have it” they’re coping with all the social anxiety of middle school with even more sexual tension and even more obvious  economic disparity. While teachers talk to them about their plans after high school, they’re adolescent brains are preoccupied with tomorrow night. We tell them the future is in front of them, yet punish them for mistakes of the past rather than help them learn from them. Alcohol, drugs, sex, cars, cell phones and money are either a distraction because students have them or a distraction because they don’t. Even if they don’t want them, students are forced to explain “why” and deal with the ramifications of their answers.

This is all regardless of home life. Even the best parents can’t protect their children from much of this, though they can certainly support kids as they mature and go through difficult times. But what about students who lack that strong support system at home?

Home schooling may be an option for some to avoid this pain, but for many more it’s an unrealistic alternative with its own inherent shortcomings. We can damn the system we’ve created for these kids and tout vouchers and private schools as the answer though the same issues exist in those environments as well.

For all the research and all the witty ideas educators have developed to help them prepare students for the future, all the differentiation, attention signals and formative assessment in the world can’t alleviate the very real stress students feel.  Perhaps the best tool for any educator is to simply be conscience of this, remain sympathetic and remember how very difficult it really is to be a kid.

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