This post was written in response to a Bill Maher editorial in which he examines how instilling an overinflated sense of self importance in children has led to the existence of Donald Trump. Original air date: March 18, 2016.
I earn a living as a substitute teacher. I've been doing it for over 30 years now. Needless to say, things have changed over the last three decades. But not always for the better. The greatest decline has occurred in the past five years, a direct result of students being given permission to bring cell phones and iPods into the classroom. Sage administrators have issued a "no cell phone" policy in their school-- but they are few and far between. They believe that these devices are a deterrent to student learning and that they have no place in the classroom. I agree with them.
Today I sat behind two students writing a French reading comprehension exam. Admittedly, they weren't the only cyborgs within my line of vision, wires dangling from their ears, heads bobbing like bobble head dolls, but I decided to focus on them. Both announced to me rather disdainfully that their ear-wear was vital for the test because it was helping them to concentrate. I decided to let it go rather than make a federal case of it and breach the precarious harmony in the room. Midway through the period, I tapped Mason (not his real name) on the shoulder and asked him to lower his music. By now, it was ringing through his ear buds. I noticed he was still stalled on the same question as when I'd last checked fifteen minutes earlier. It was clear that he was far more interested in his handheld gadget, thumbing through a playlist, listening to the first few bars of a song, rocking to the beat, tiring of it, scrolling through the list again. Next he was watching the replay of a recorded football match before his blinking screen alerted me that he was onto a video game.
This is what a regular class of secondary five students, mere months away from graduation, looks like. Some of them will pass, move on and do very well. Some of the cyborgs, like Mason, will be lucky and circle the right number of multiple choice answers on their high school leaving exam. They too will graduate. But others won't. And then the rationalizing will begin. The teacher didn't like me. Or, It wasn't my fault! (Of course not, dear, it's always the teacher's fault.) They'll have to do summer school and write the supplemental exam. And if that doesn't work out, they'll turn up in adult education classes. Sheepish or still whining about how the system failed them. One or two might take responsibility for their bad choices.
So what does this have to do with anything?
A few days ago, I was in a high school where they were running a spelling bee. What struck me was not so much the low level of the students' vocabulary but the response that an incorrect answer elicited. When a word was spelled correctly, the judge simply replied "correct." But when a contestant misspelled a word, the judge's reaction was inappropriately forgiving. "I'm sorry," was the reply followed by "Good job!" or "Congratulations!" It took me aback. A person congratulates another to express approval and acclaim, to offer praise for an achievement or a job well done. Getting the word wrong is not an achievement.
This tradition hyper-positivity, of compensating students as though everything they produce is gold, is nothing new. When my son was in grade six, the talk, as the magnolias were coming into bloom, was of an elementary school graduation, a grand affair in which children would get the afternoon off to get their hair and nails done, go shopping for a tuxedo or a strapless evening gown. Some spoke of hiring limousines for the occasion. I remember expressing my concern over the idea -- what would these kids have to look forward to after such a gala? It would just be one in a long line of graduations, high school, then Cegep, then university if they made it that far. I joined the parents' committee embroiled in a debate over whether or not all graduates should be awarded a certificate of merit, regardless of their academic or athletic performance. A certificate just for showing up every day and breathing the air. The way every guest gets a goodie bag after a birthday party. Parents suggested creating individualized certificates for every child. A certificate for the best smile, for the nicest kid on the playground, for the best little helper. I raised a tender issue. If every kid got a certificate, what meaning would it have? To heap praise on a kid who did nothing all year but wreak havoc or a kid who didn't shine on any level, what message would that send to the one who strove all year to be the best or show the most improvement? More importantly, what message would it send to the slacker or the class bully? I got angry glares from just about every parent on the committee. People worried about the self-esteem of those children who received nothing as they crossed the stage, quite unremarkably.
Once, while I was handing back a class set of history exams, I told the students it was a good thing I wasn't handing them back the way we used to get our exams returned to us-- in descending order of achievement. That's just not right, somebody griped. Why the heck not, I thought to myself. In my day, humiliation and the fear of failure kept us on track. If we did poorly, it was a kick in the pants to smarten up. Public shaming: it worked. It was effective. Today, it's not a method endorsed by educators. It isn't politically correct.
Giving in to the students, letting them wear ear buds in class "because it helps them focus" is bogus. It's a lie perpetrated by many teachers, administrators and school boards. Let me clarify. Allowing students listen to their music in a visual arts class is one thing. Expecting them to focus and do well on a language or math assignment is quite another. Giving them an opening to fiddle with their iPods and cell phones for subjects outside the arts is inviting them to become distracted.
There's no denying that the clientele has changed. Social and behavioural problems in the classroom are on the rise. More and more students have a code written in beside their name to indicate to teachers that they have a learning or social deficit. And with dwindling funds allotted to education, fewer and fewer resources available to special needs students, teachers often have no choice but to give into these gadgets, cell phones or iPods as the case may be, hoping that they will avert or dampen the effects of chaos in the classroom. And I don't blame them. I rely on them myself on occasion, especially when I'm facing a rude, entitled, unruly bunch ("Miss, the reason you're such a bitch is because you need to get laid.") Those who have been coddled and told over and over, from preschool on, that they are awesome, terrific, A-one. Even when they are not.