As an instructor of graduate courses at a teacher’s college there are two topics that students and I often engaged in discussion about;
1 – Are there observable changes in children between their generation and the current generation?
2 – Is there anything teachers can do about it?
This would inevitably lead to exploring the influences that shape the minds, hearts and bodies of babies and help form school-age children. These are the children that we, as teachers, get to work with.
Influences occur at various phases in a child’s life. First there is the period of influence that comes before birth. Though there have been proponents of the blank-slate-theory, any parent, and most individuals with any strength of observation, are able to see that children arrive as unique individuals, before further formation takes place. Children are not entirely blank when they are born – many influences have already begun to work on them from the point of conception and before – maternal and paternal lineage contributions being among the most significant. Yet there is more. Babies bring something with them.
However, it is the collection of influences occurring from the moment of birth that we speak about here – from the magical first breath to the first self-aware realization, then on into childhood and young-adulthood.
Question #1 How have children changed over recent generations?
As I query graduate students the results often go like this:
-Children show less respect for adults, for authority
-They show less respect for the Golden Rule
-They show less respect for themselves
-They communicate more through technology than face-to-face
-Children seem more than ever to be concerned only about themselves, about what they have and what they can get
-There seems to be a much greater sense of entitlement (I deserve/ I want my piece of the pie)
-Values have shifted from personal integrity to personal posturing
-Considering careers involving any form of service has been replaced by the desire for money “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “Rich”
-A sentiment flourishes: “I will get rich by whatever means” (the ends justify the means)
-The ability to sustain focused attention has gone way down
-Time spent in captured attention has increased
-Vocabulary skills have significantly decreased
-General knowledge has decreased
-Awareness of other cultures has decreased, even with global media and intercultural contact
-Appreciation for fine culture and fine arts has plummeted
-Independence and healthy self-direction is declining
-Children don’t seem to care about learning like they used to
-Some gravitate more toward virtual than actual experience
And one student offered:
-The inner life of many children has become more shallow and impoverished
The list goes on.
The follow-up question we then grapple with is, “Is there anything that teachers can do about this?”
Before I continue with this line of conversation, however, there are a few points I wish to make clear:
1 The focus of this posting is more on determining the level of influence teachers might have than on specific techniques or approaches
2 The specific changes focused upon will be more about the considerable potential teachers hold within themselves as self-directing individuals and as a group, rather than historical assigned teacher-tasks such as acculturating aliens, or hailing the amazing new invention of the frozen TV dinner that was supposed to fortify marriages by creating more time for women to clean the home instead of slaving over cooking a meal, which would entice their men to come directly home after work and not stopping at a bar to drink, ending up with happier families everywhere.
3 A true understanding of what I am about to present, even in its simplicity, could change both perspective and effort in a large part of our population – teachers.
Addressing the second question posed above, discussion begins with the graduate class. I ask…
Question #2 What are the primary influences on babies and young children?
A sampling of student responses run as follows:
-parents & family
-experiences (from joyful to tragic)
As I asked students to begin narrowing down the categories of major influences, choosing the five most influential, they started identifying several influences on the list as sub-categories and placing them into a smaller group of major or primary influences. When I asked them to further narrow down the primary categories to only three – here were the usual results (in no particular order):
a Culture/media/intentional messaging
c Schools & teachers
When we look at each of these three major areas of influence on children we begin to see something interesting. We begin to see where the greatest potential for change might lie – change that is wide-spread and long-lasting.
Let’s begin with the influence of media and culture. Culture is certainly a huge and widely varying influence, and reflects virtually all of the other influences listed above plus many more. Media, on the other hand, has a more specific and consistent target – that is to promote its own perspective. Be it political, financial, or moral, most media sources, from newspapers to the vast network of advertising, are interested in one thing – getting their message out, and shaping the minds of the populace. Children are exposed to promotional influences at ever earlier ages – through written and electronic means at home, at school, on busses. Advertising is everywhere, ready with suggestion of how to think, speak, act and feel, but never on how to think for oneself, not on how to explore one’s individuality, not on how to answer deep questions that nag at us, not on how to be self-reliant in any way.
“You deserve a break today!” is not selling the quality of a product, but rather of an idea, a feeling, designed to lodge into our brains and hearts. If we buy a certain product, this “deserving” drive can be fulfilled and we can be complete. Simple. And so we learn to look for simple and superficial solutions to sometimes complex and lengthy processes, ones that can, however, lead to powerful experiences and tools that can carry us forward for a life-time. The messages are designed to make us lazy and to accept cheap solutions.
To summarize – The well-being of the individual is largely ignored. Culture/media/intentional messaging is either neutral in influence or completely motivated by self-interest.
The second influence listed above, the influence of parents and family, is the first one for children to experience. It is immediate. It is all encompassing. Soon it is blended with other influences, yet still it goes on for a long time, into the child’s school years. This influence never leaves a child, even as an adult, for much has been internalized.
What I have seen of the relationship between children and family is that parents and family members do the best that they can for their children. They want the best for their children and do what they can to give it to them. It is as simple as that. Could they do better? Of course there is always room for improvement. But major shifts are not going to happen – unless the a significant portion of the entire body of parents changes first. Then there might be something different to offer.
In regards to the third influence listed above, the influence of teachers there are some interesting things to consider.
*It is the job of teachers to become good observers.
“Teachers must be able to report specifically and precisely how students can and cannot perform in all academic areas for which they are responsible.”
and “Teachers must observe students’ behavior and refer those they suspect of having disabilities for evaluation by a multi-disciplinary team.”
Hallahan, Daniel P., Kauffman, James M. and Pullen, Paige C. (2009) . Exceptional learners (11th ed) . USA: Pearson (pp. 19)
Success in this example is accomplished through observation and evaluation.
*Teachers must be proficient at assessment
“…adequate evaluation requires the teacher’s assessment to the student in the classroom.”
Hallahan et al. (pp. 19)
*Teachers must be able to change themselves
“Flexibility, adaptation, accommodation, and special attention are to be expected of every teacher.”
Hallahan et al. (pp. 19)
*Teachers are tasked with bringing out the best in their students
From the Oxford English Dictionary: Educate – (see educe) Educe – to bring out or draw forth (as something latent)
e- prefix3 + duc- , of the stem of dūcere to lead – To bring out, elicit, or develop from a state of latent, rudimentary, or potential existence.
*It is the job of teachers to advocate for their students
“Psychologists, counselors, physicians, physical therapists…other specialists… need teachers’ perspectives on students’ abilities and disabilities…”
Hallahan et al. (pp. 22)
*Teachers should strive to be self-aware
“…to train teachers to be aware of their own cultural histories and biases”
Hallahan et al. (pp. 94)
Above is a selection of teacher attributes for which each teacher is tasked. I have supported each of these charges with one (of many) sample source, to emphasize these wide-spread main-stream expectations of teachers.
To summarize: Why Teaching Matters
Teachers are in a unique position to bring about change in our children and in our society. On a large scale they are the citizens who are charged with understanding themselves, as teachers and as individuals, of being able to change their perspectives and behaviors in order to best serve their students, and to monitor and guide the growth of the children of our society. Teachers are given the task of developing many specific skills such as observation, assessing the actions and feelings of oneself and others, and addressing the social, academic, and emotional lives of their students.
The result of this is that teachers are in a position of transforming a generation of children, of helping them to become self-reliant, perceptive, cooperative, inquisitive, and joyfully engaged in learning and exploring – even rebelling in hopefully healthy ways . The outlook and capabilities of the current generation of children will be directly influenced by teachers. How children see what is around them, what is within them, and their ability to interact with it all, will form largely due to their interaction with teachers. This then will help shape the next generation of parents, which will go on to affect the next generation of children. And so it goes. Parents – Children – Teachers: An eternal triad – holding a healthy equilibrium of what is appropriate for the time – or, with luck and skill, spiraling upward when needed, as entropy or various self-interests begin to pull things down.
Here is one example of change. Consider the trend toward marginalizing people as they age – in families, for instance. Elder family members are often ignored, treated as if they are becoming infantile, or simply put away in facilities, well before the real need is there. Individuals may even become more useless as the expectation for their uselessness increases. This is one attitude that can begin to change in one or two generations. Elders could be brought into activities where they make valid contributions, experience their worth, and offer their worth. The attitude of children could bring about this change. Is it worth it? I am sure there are studies to show how much money can be saved by having elders contributing to society for a longer period in their lives (and postponing expensive nursing care) Consider the value to be had by children they engage with, and the increased health for elders themselves. Whatever one’s perspective is on this, it is easy to see that a change in the attitude of children will affect the generation of adult voters and policy makers that they will become – An example of change.
Teachers are the ones who are given this weighty task – of growing each generation of children, mindfully, intentionally, respectfully – children who mature into the next generation of parents. This is the profession that teachers step into. Though this vision is seldom given its proper due by teacher-colleges, by the legislation and policy which influences teacher-perspective and latitude-of-action, or too often by teachers themselves, it never-the-less holds true. Teachers are in a position to make significant changes in each child, in children, and so in society – and it is their given responsibility to do so.