Schools Squander Imperative
By Adam Fletcher | January 2023
Schools are struggling, to say the least. By their own report, the US Department of Education paints a damning picture of the inability of educators and school leaders to recapture and re-institute the “good ol’ days” before the pandemic. Stories I have heard directly from teachers on the ground confirm this reality.
However, all of these researchers and educators painting this bleak picture are the problem itself. Instead of taking responsibility for their own failures, educators are repeatedly pointing their fingers at students. According to one post-pandemic summary from July 2022, student misconduct, rowdiness outside of the classroom, acts of disrespect towards teachers and staff, and prohibited use of electronic devices are all indicators of negative student behavior that define student engagement and student success in schools.
Viewing students—as the problem, not as the solution—is demeaning, deceiving, and ultimately irresponsible. It dismisses the imperative presented to educators after the pandemic, which plainly demanded that schools wholly re-envision learning, teaching and leadership throughout education.
During remote learning, many students became authentically empowered for the first time in school. Suddenly, they were able to decide for themselves whether they wanted to turn their cameras on, if they wanted to show their interest by answering questions, and what their own best modalities for learning were, in-person or online. Without the lingering physical dominance of teachers standing above them, many students chose to disengage at will, leaving the frame of their cameras to remain unseen or simply not showing up at all.
Some would argue that this was a false choice at best, but I disagree. In pre-pandemic schools, it was a luxury to leave school and believe you’ll succeed without a great deal of privilege and money. During the pandemic students had a lot of leeway despite their socio-economic standing. Schools are striving to re-assert their authority after the pandemic to the detriment of students of color, low-income students, and neurodivergent learners everywhere.
The “negative student behavior” described by research I mentioned shows what happens when you take a person who has tasted freedom and confine them again. They become disruptive, they don’t act according to rules, they lose respect for people who don’t respect them, and they use the devices that liberated them from the confines of small thinking, finite learning, and insufferable testing. In other words, they act in ways educators don’t approve of.
Instead of forcing conformity and demanding compliance, schools could seize this moment by embracing authentic student engagement, which happens when students have agency in learning. That can mean students determining the things they want to learn, utilizing the learning methods that work for them, identifying how well they learn given subjects, making cross-curricular connections according to their own interests, and following their passions.
The pandemic got schools en masse closer to that reality than ever before. Unfortunately, we are squandering the imperative demanded by students by trying to force them back into the boxes they emerged from during that time. Hopefully this won’t require another pandemic to change.
You can read “More than 80 Percent of U.S. Public Schools Report Pandemic Has Negatively Impacted Student Behavior and Socio-Emotional Development” from the National Center for Education Statistics at the US Department of Education here.