Throughout my career as a reluctant scholar I was not always a diligent student but I was usually well-behaved. I didn’t get into trouble very often. Well, there was that incident with Roger Glen Hayes, my best friend, where we were doing something that was prohibited. But in my defense, I had recently turned five and we were in kindergarten. The two of us simply couldn’t resist the lure of playing “man on raft chased by alligators” with the big wooden blocks just one more time. And as a result we paid dearly for our transgressions; we were both severely dealt with, consequences including corporal punishment.
But that was a very different place and an even more distant time.
Today teachers are facing classrooms loaded with young children who have grown up with computers, flat-screen high-definition TVs, phones that are packed with enticing games and handheld toys that imitate life in extreme forms. Those same teachers are charged with competing with these entertaining mediums and gaining the full attention of their students.
While both student and teacher are pursuing engaging and interesting activities, those activities are in many ways not the same for each group. They both want to experience learning but the direction of that learning is often at cross purpose.The teachers want depth and focus, the students want excitement and interest, who will succeed?
If this makes modern American public education sound like a war — welcome to the battlefield.
Students and teachers can have different agendas. When their expectations are at odds with each other this causes conflict. Additionally, our teachers are under attack from non-professionals judging their results and questioning their motives. That engenders still more confusion, self-doubt and in the end many teachers simply give up and look for easier employment elsewhere.
But those hardy few who are sticking it out are looking for answers. Child study and psychological evaluation are some methods that educators turn to to try and assess the student’s learning potentials. Often when children are evaluated for behavior issues that interrupts learning for them and sometimes even more importantly their peers’ learning, the question of medication raises it’s oft-contested head.
An article in EdWeek by Nancy Rappaport seeks to address this issue. She argues that while:
“Education reform does not come from introducing Ritalin into the cafeteria lunches of poor schools.”
She also recognizes that when there is something wrong:
“Many teachers do not get the support they need on how to work with children struggling with mental-health problems. Too often, teachers enter the classroom ill-equipped to respond to students’ challenging behaviors: their refusal to do work, defiance of teacher authority, persistent arguing, or, in the words of one principal I know, their ability to go from “zero to 100 in a split second.”1)
Personally I was never a fan of medication for behavior issues but along with many of my colleagues I have seen an alarming increase in disruptive and distracted behavior in classrooms which makes the job of teaching the rest of the class while dealing with such interruptions something approaching critical mass.
So what is the answer?
Another article by Caralee Adams suggests one solution may lie in “character education”. Character education involves training for teachers and students that focuses on appropriate social interaction for everyone in the school. At its heart the concept seeks to instruct and develop responsible personal conduct in school environments. Recent data from some schools suggests that embedding character education as part of an overall school culture may significantly decrease misbehavior and help support key values such as “respect and ownership”. It may also help decrease incidents of ‘bullying behavior’. 2)
Some might say that schools are not charged with raising children, merely educating them. Most teachers would probably agree but find themselves looking for parental strategies as much as instructional. Spending time teaching character education takes valuable minutes away from core objectives.
Though there have been other detractors of the concept of “character education”, Adams states:
“A 2011 meta-analysis of school-based social and emotional learning programs published in “Child Development” found significant improvements in academic achievement, behavior, and attitudes compared with control groups.”
One new factor that may seemingly be driving this idea of character education and other solutions to classroom management issues, is the adoption by many states of the Common Core standards. Inherent in the CCS are critical thinking and synthesis, skills that demand focus and attention to learning.
However, even if the idea of ‘character education’ offers some serious hope for solutions to mis-behavior it is my belief that there is still a glaring problem. That problem is with all the financial cuts that have occurred to education, our schools are now significantly lacking in necessary support personnel who can identify and help treat the most radical behaviors. Counselors, social workers, even psychologists and indeed, teachers have been decreased to the extent that those who are left in schools are virtually unable to take on one more mandate; which is what adding a new set of lessons that focus on additional skills would amount to; no matter how valuable they may be.
Imagine sending one out of every five firefighters home and then asking the ones who remain to continue to do their job just as they have and take on the new task of counseling the populace in fire safety standards. By diverting resources from the service we would invariably be less protected from future hazards.
Fires are already burning and they are in our schools, threatening great swaths of valuable resources, our children and subsequently our own futures. There is no panacea beyond attention to the needs of children to allow them to become effective learners. You can’t be expected to learn if you are hungry, sick, angry or tired. And you can’t be expected to learn if you are consumed by actions that are beyond your control.
We must clear the way to allow teachers to teach and students to learn but even more, we must encourage that teaching and learning.
Once again I am left saying, while proposed ideas such as ‘character education’ are all well in an idyllic world and possibly helpful in practice, unless we commit ourselves as a nation to fully support our children, their families, their schools and their education, we are talking about yet another unfunded mandate.