A few weeks later the school year began and our in-service was typical professional cuisine for educators these days. In the not-so-distant past—say ten to twenty years ago—professional development, teacher trainings, and in-services were devoted to unsurprising items such as pedagogy, academics, and teaching strategies. Discussion, and yes, even pointed debate, would often erupt as teachers discussed the finer points of the teaching craft:
How familiar should teachers be with their students?
What is the proper mix of lecture, discussion, and in-class activities?
How does desk formation change the ambience of the learning environment?
Should teachers be watered-down automatons to ensure equity or should we be impresarios of individuality and innovation?
We refined our techniques, slowly created site and department consensus, and used professional development as a way of inching towards an amorphous and ever-changing ideal of what a teacher should be. We duly adjusted to the fad and movement of the moment but we never doubted that we were there to provide an education to the students sitting in our classrooms.
And yet, sit through a modern in-service today and the message is very different. While there is, of course, a ubiquitous tipping of the hat to technological trends and tools, the conversation has changed dramatically because the assumptions about our students have changed, some might say eroded.
In virtually any teacher training or in-service in the past five years is the persistent assumption that American students have been traumatized to some degree before they walk into our classrooms, either because of a deficiency in their backgrounds or because they have not been sufficiently supported by their educational institutions in the past. As a result, “Social-Emotional” learning has supplanted any talk of discipline, standards, or high academic achievement.
Talk to a high school counselor or administrator today and ask them to enumerate all of the services that now must be provided before students even walk into a classroom. They are likely to run out of oxygen: meals, day-care, poverty intervention, bullying seminars, counseling for grief, anger, gang involvement, and the list goes on and on and on.
The relationships and institutions that cultivate character and instill the moral and mental habits in young people have atrophied in our culture as the number of homeless students, absentee students, and ill-prepared students has mushroomed to epidemic levels. Profanity on campuses goes unnoticed, or at least unpunished. Dances become water-down bacchanals. Students scoff or at least find it quaint that they would sit down to dinner with their parents. And in the place of conscientious parents and strong communities the American school is now supposed to be the bulwark against the proverbial barbarians at the gate.
Schools have always played a pivotal role in the socialization of young children. But the impetus behind social-emotional learning is a sinister reality no one wants to admit: as the relationships and institutions that socialize children become tattered, we now expect teachers and schools to fill every gap that is sure to erupt.
A consensus of social science research has emerged over the past twenty years that bridges virtually every divide of ideology or party. And this consensus explains why teachers now must be “mindful,” sensitive to emotional fragility, and encouraging as much as possible. The ultimate privilege in the schooling process is to have been reared in a loving home with parents who love their children, read and converse with their children, actively engage in the community of learning in both the home and the school, encourage involvement in athletics and the arts, and shield young children from the influences of violence, omnipresent vulgarity, and degrading sexuality. Children forced to virtually raise themselves rarely cultivate a middle ground of self-belief tempered by humility.
Schools now act as a form of a secular hermitage where students don’t just practice reading and writing, PE and arithmetic, but also where they receive the many varieties of emotional support that used to be the province of mothers and fathers, pastors and siblings. Schools are correctives and counterbalances to backgrounds of despair. Indeed, when students are not fed, we feed them. When students are not clothed, we clothe them.
I don’t deny that schools must fill the void. They must. But I worry about how it affects our primary responsibility to actually teach our students. I doubt most of the broader public or policy-makers realize the strain and stress this new paradigm—call it the in loco parentis paradigm—places on the entire apparatus of education, both administrators and teachers alike.
The conversations of professional development today almost always revolve around the emotional impoverishment of our children. There is an assumption of juvenile fragility in our students that renders notions of classroom “tough love,” “discipline,” and “strictness” anathema to the dictum to educate “the whole child.” Teachers were once celebrated for fostering high expectations. They were once expected to be intolerant of mediocrity and excuse-making, no matter the background of the student. While the no-excuses mentality is still embraced on the playing field (a topic for another op-ed I suppose), for some reason it is unacceptable in the modern classroom. Tough love is now tantamount to a lack of empathy. Strictness is akin to intolerance.
As Dr. Ernest Zarra, author of the newly-released book Common Sense Education: From Common Core To ESSA and Beyond has observed,”…‘teaching the whole child,’ really means focus down on their emotions and their social-emotional skills with others. I have so many concerns and questions about SEL, not the least of which are (1) what traits are we talking about, and (2) how does a person teach the higher values and traits to emulate, if the standard for these higher values has been removed from schools?”
What remains to be seen is if this fad in teacher in-services is the proper response to social strife and emotional deficiency. Is “understanding” and empathy of their difficulties going to help them in the long run more than old-fashioned demands of excellence? Human beings learn in a variety of ways, but what classical education used to emphasize was the power of human exemplars. A child might be impoverished at home, but at school a student could learn about the civic virtue of Cato, the bravery of Ernest Shackleton, or the moral universe of Ghandi. Students were poor at home, yes, but because of the rigor of their educations, they were intellectually and emotionally rich at school. And the hardships of high standards that were once imposed in the classroom, no matter a student’s background, were preparation for the much deeper adversities of life writ large.
After all, the world celebrates genius and beauty for a fortunate few, but for the rest of us mortals it is dogged determination that rescues us from the endless fiasco of perpetual failure.
My fear is that in our zest to be kind and practice the softer virtues of teaching, we are giving hugs instead of exemplars of humanity. There is a “soft bigotry” of low expectations and while it is essential to support, comfort, and empathize with our students, it is now difficult to gauge where the virtues of diligence and industry should enter the picture.
Be understanding but tough. Maybe that should be the mantra of the modern age.