A lot of things have changed in my seventeen years of teaching.
Back when I first began, I was told, “Don’t smile until Christmas,” by almost everybody around me: education professors, veteran teachers, administrators. Everybody.
Thankfully, that has changed. Now teachers are encouraged to build relationships of trust and respect with our students. And that is a very positive change.
Not all of the changes have been for the better, though.
Some things, once rare, have become commonplace: like social media bullying and the threat of school shootings. Some things are nearly brand new: like vape juuls and dab pens. And some things are the new normal: like lockdown drills and smart phone distractions.
School shootings are a profoundly American tragedy, and one I’ve addressed before. In my years of teaching, they’ve become so ubiquitous that society seems to be jaded about them. This breaks my heart.
Smart phones didn’t exist seventeen years ago, but they’re everywhere now — along with rapidly multiplying smart watches. And with them, social media is a near-constant source of distraction (and contention) in the classroom. This likewise makes me super sad.
Kids would much rather check the stories on Snapchat than read the stories in English class. Instagram features and filters are much more compelling to them than mathematical fractals and fractions. Even in athletics, they’d sometimes rather tweet than compete.
Teachers get paid to teach… but very often, we feel like we do anything and everything BUT teach. Our classrooms have become lessons in covert operations.
Juuls and dab pens are everywhere — but kids are experts at hiding them. Hoodies and rubber bands have become suspect. Kids wear rubber bands around their wrist sleeves so they can hide juuls and take hits. They wear hoodies tight round their faces so they can exhale into their shirts.
I’ve seen vapor clouds disappear above students’ heads, but been unable to locate the source. I’ve seen discarded cartridges magically appear in my corners.
We play detective every day, trying to figure out which kid was the source of the sickeningly sweet odor infiltrating our room; which kid has red eyes from allergies, which kid has red eyes from THC; which kid is staring at his crotch because he’s texting, and which kid is staring at his crotch because he’s bored. (We get it all, almost every day.)
And you might think juuls and dab pens are more dangerous than smart phones, but experts argue they are all equally hazardous. I would agree.
Adolescent drug use, depression, and suicide is on the rise — and a huge contributing factor is social media and the pressures that come with it. Kids buy what social media is selling, which is almost always half-truths and lies.
Teens see the highlight reels of celebrities and idols and believe the image portrayed is reality. And then there’s also the bullies and predators out there, pressuring kids into sexting and nude pics — and the ensuing threats and belittling if they don’t… and the degrading and shame if they do.
Almost every aspect of social media leaves our kids feeling like they are not rich enough or smart enough or pretty enough or blond enough or athletic enough or cool enough… that they quite simply are not, nor will ever be, ENOUGH.
There’s been more than one occasion where I’ve found suicidal thoughts embedded in student essays. Social media is feeding insecurity and depression and kids are seeking escape through drugs and suicide.
Yes, teaching has gotten noticeably harder in the last seventeen years.
Before, I was told not to smile until Christmas. Now I’m told to smile and greet my students outside the classroom every day. To give high fives and side hugs. To genuinely care about my students and make sure they know I do.
These days, our district (and district all over our nation) are encouraging teachers to build relationships with students.
Because in a world full of school shootings and school bullying, teen depression, smart phone distractions, vape pens, and drug abuse, kids are not getting a whole lot of positive messages or interactions with anyone anymore — peers or adults.
Because for some of our students, the smiles and greetings and side hugs we give are the only real human connection they make on any given day.
Sometimes our classroom is the only place where kids’ voices are used and actually heard. The only place where kids are given attention and affirmation. The only place where kids feel safe and secure and at home.
Some kids get nurtured at home. Some don’t. Some kids have the tools they need to navigate this increasingly treacherous world. Some don’t. Our job is to make sure all kids do. Teachers don’t just teach the Three R’s anymore.
The most important job we have as teachers now is to demonstrate love, compassion, and positive interaction. To teach community. To model the best of what humanity can be.
I’ve never been a teacher who didn’t smile till Christmas. Never. It wasn’t in my nature.
And while I’m glad that particular rule is no longer the norm, it makes me sad that changing times are what finally made the institution that is education see that students really do need and deserve smiles… long before Christmas.
Yes, there have been many changes over my seventeen years of teaching, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is that I still love teaching students. I really do. I still find it the most rewarding thing I can do with my life, besides motherhood.
But for me, teaching and motherhood are the perfect pairing. They go together like tacos and Tuesdays, cookies and milk, bacon and anything.
… like smiles in the classroom.