Students Then and Now

One of the things people say often when they find out I teach High School English is that they can’t imagine teaching “kids today.”

To some extent, that’s generational–in many ways, students today are very similar to the students of the past.  There were always disruptive clowns in class, and there were always arrogant students who thought they were smarter than the teacher, and there were always kiss-ass students and students who wouldn’t pay attention to the teacher if you paid them to.  But there are some differences between students of the 80s, when I was in school, and students today, and they can make the classroom fairly challenging to control.

To be fair, I also went to a nationally-recognized good school in an area that, at the time, was solidly middle class (we had poor students, and we had rich students, but most of us were in the middle to upper-middle of the socioeconomic strata), so my perceptions of then and now may be a bit off–but I’ve spoken to many other teachers who grew up in different circumstances about this over the last few years, and most of us are seeing the same things, regardless of where we came from.

When I was in school, we knew and accepted that it was our responsibility to bring paper, pencils, and our backpack with books.  Sure, sometimes we were out of paper, or we forgot a book, but for the most part, at least in the classes I was in, we all had our supplies.

By contrast, today’s students often come without anything other than the clothes on their back, regardless of their socioeconomic status.  When they do have backpacks, they’ll refuse to put them on the “dirty” floor, but insist on keeping them on their desk.  Girls, I’ve noticed, often won’t put their purses down, but keep them on their desk, using up valuable space and then complaining they don’t have enough room for everything on their desk.

When I was in school, cell phones were virtually unknown, and mostly limited to car-phones.  My aunt had an early mobile phone in her car, and later one of the brick-shaped handhelds, but no students had one.  Some had pagers, but those weren’t generally allowed in school.

Today’s students are always on their phones.  The official school rule is that all electronics need to be shut off and put away, but kids will pull them out the second they have a spare moment, no matter how many times you’ve taken their phone from them.  If they get a text, they want to answer it NOW, and they use the phrase “It’s my mom” as if it’s some kind of magical passphrase that allows them to ignore rules.  I’ve caught kids playing games during activity times, sexting, taking pictures, and even watching movies–including porn.  And even though they were suspended, they do the same things when they return to class.

Very few of my peers read as much as I did, but many of them read, both for class and outside of it. If they didn’t read the assigned pages, they at least pretended to be ashamed that they’d blown the assignment.  Today’s students don’t read at all, and more worrying, they’re proud of that.  Where my friends might have said “This book is boring,” today’s students declare that all books are boring.  To be sure, I have a few bookworms in my classes, but very few compared to the classes I remembered in my own high school days. Getting them to read even the shortest of stories is a pain; novels are often excruciating, even if they claim to like the story.

This lack of reading shows itself in numerous ways.  Because they don’t read, their grasp of grammar is atrocious.  Many of my students are writing several grade levels below what they should be capable of based on their general intelligence.

Then there’s the laziness.  For example, this picture is 100% accurate, and I fight it all the time:


I mean, can you imagine?  I try to explain to them that studies have proven that we remember what we write down far better than things we’ve only looked at, but I might as well be telling them that my father was born in 1949.  They just don’t care.

And, finally, the most insidious change–and this one isn’t the fault of the students.

This one’s on their parents.

When I didn’t do my homework, or got in trouble in class, my teachers called my parents, and I caught merry hell.  Sure, it didn’t always work–teens are teens, after all–but my parents tried. 

Today’s parents–well, there’s a mixed bag.  About half of them are on their kids all the time–the other half either say they’ll deal with it and don’t, or they outright don’t bother.  I once had to call a mom to explain to her that her son had been clearly high in my class (don’t get me started on why I had to call; that should have been an admin job. Suffice to say the admin wasn’t doing their job).  Her response was “What do you want me to do about it?”  Other parents have told me their kids are my problem when they’re in school; one parent told me to never call him again and that if I couBad-Parentingldn’t handle his kid, I shouldn’t be a teacher.

Fortunately, that sort of thing is rare–but many teachers have the experience of parents blaming them for their kids’ terrible grades.  One of my colleagues just this week was accosted by a parent who came on campus without signing in to yell at her.  Parent drop their kids off in areas where there are huge signs asking them not to.  They bring their kids pizza or McDonald’s for lunch nearly daily.  They get them out of class because the kid texts them that they’re bored and want out.

In all fairness, however, I have to say that it’s not always the parents’ fault.  I’ve talked to parents who are at their wits’ end, desperately trying to help a child who doesn’t want their help.  I’ve had a student who was the son of a school district superintendent who wanted desperately to be a gang member, no matter how many times he got his ass kicked.  I’ve listened to a mother talk about how many times her son had been in jail and heard the quiet fear in her voice that he wasn’t going to live to adulthood if he didn’t get a clue.  I’ve sat there in impotent rage when a kid called his mother a “stupid bitch” to her face, and seen the tears in her eyes.*   I once called a father to talk to him about his daughter telling me to “fuck off,” and he laughed, then got very quiet and said “I’m sorry.  It’s just that that’s mild compared to what she says to her mom and I every day.  We’re trying, but we can’t get through to her.”

And that’s the last thing–respect seems to be a thing of the past in many of my students.

All in all, it’s an interesting job–sometimes it’s amazing and cool, sometimes it’s death.

* We did call him on that, but there was little we could do other than tell him that was unacceptable.

Published by Michael R. Johnston

Father of an eighth grader, high school English teacher, writer. Fifty years old and feeling almost every bit of it on some days, and not a bit of it on others. Based in Sacramento, California, USA

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