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Skipping School: Changing Children Or Changing Culture?

Children getting onto a school bus
How are changing student needs impacting teachers and who decides to join (or leave) the profession?

Editor's note: This is Part 4 of GLT’s Skipping School, a special series about the teacher shortage facing Illinois schools. You can also read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Out of the many variables affecting the teacher shortage in Illinois and across the nation—perhaps the largest one—is children themselves.

If you want certainty or even firm conclusions, most sources, including Illinois State University Psychology Professor Greg Braswell, say this story will not give it to you.

“We’re very squishy. I think a lot of times parents and educators want comfy answers about how we learn and develop. Yeah, there’s a lot of squishiness,” said Braswell.

Skipping School: A GLT series about the teacher shortage facing Illinois schools.
Credit Flickr / Creative Commons - Patrick McFall
Creative Commons - Patrick McFall
This week on GLT's Sound Ideas: A four-part series on the teacher shortage facing the State of Illinois, called Skipping School.

He said studies are showing that kids hit the same developmental milestones at the same ages they did during previous generations; rough times for reading, gaining ability to concentrate, emotional development milestones, about the same. Ages of stages of brain development have not changed in the aggregate for most children, though there are outliers.

Karen Stephens agreed. She has spent over four decades in early childhood education, including as longtime head of the Illinois State University Child Care Center.

“I absolutely do not think children have changed one iota. Their developmental needs for attachment, bonding, security, nourishment, nurturing has not changed for eons,” said Stephens.

However, milestones are hard to define.

“Yeah, students have changed,” said Karl Goeke, a 16-year veteran Unit 5 teacher, now at Normal Community West High School.

“They have grown because our society has changed and grown, right? It’s like amphibians,” said Goeke. Amphibians feel the effects of climate change long before other animals because of their porous skin, which absorbs water. Goeke said he feels children are affected in different ways, similar to how amphibians are affected by different circumstances than other animals. He said even the brains of children respond to stimuli as they develop in a stronger way than adults.

Stephens said the environment has changed for children. She said children now spend about seven hours of screen time a day, even preschoolers. For the first time we’re raising a generation that will have a shorter lifespan than current adults because of obesity and a rise in diabetes. Another big change is a lack of kids having contact with real green nature. She says kids are loved, but not trusted, and perhaps protected too much.

“I think we’ve got some kids who aren’t as confident. They question themselves more, meaning I can’t do it or maybe I can’t do it, taking a bit of their courage away. Let’s face it: School starts up and I’ve literally heard people say let’s make bets about when the first school shooting is going to happen. Now, if that has become normal, if that has become something we can joke about, that worries me,” said Stephens.

Stephens also said children today are more "indignant" than they were a generation ago. She said they pay more attention to the adult world than adults sometimes think. She said they’re capable of seeing the irony of going to a school with stickers on the door saying no guns allowed.

Kids also pay attention to the lack of politeness or civility in public discourse in spite of the classroom messages they get to the contrary. Goeke said he never thought society would regress to people marching in the streets with tiki torches shouting racial slurs.

“They notice this! These are the role models. When we’ve got the president of the United States tweeting out horrible things about people, it’s so hard to hear the first lady talk about wanting to address bullying, and then to see that is cyberbullying coming out of the president of the United States, no ifs ands or buts about it,” said Goeke. Other elements might matter more to how children perform and the pressures teachers face in the classroom.

Poverty and Mobility

Jeff Hill, the superintendent of the Peoria suburban Morton district, has headed the largely urban and low poverty Illinois State University Lab Schools and was a principal in the rural Olympia district.

“We know poverty is really the No. 1 indicator for low-achieving students. And that simply goes to the background, the life experiences that can be provided a student before they come to school,” said Hill.

Income can drive student mobility too. Hill said you don’t see a lot of high-achieving schools that are also high-mobility schools with a lot of students moving around to new residences or in and out of the district. That is not to say that poverty is destiny in producing messed-up kids, but Braswell said it is a factor.

“We go through cycles of poverty levels increasing and decreasing and some of the potential problems tied to that. There are a lot of traumas and difficulties that can be associated with poverty,” said Braswell. Poverty rates in central Illinois spiked upwards during and following the great recession, though in most areas those rates have subsided in recent years. Longer term trends showed flat to falling per capital income in Illinois and many parts of the country.

The amount of resources devoted to addressing the challenges of poverty also matter, which have proved problematic in recent years because of Illinois' state budget crisis and political deadlock.

Braswell said economic security matters not only in intellectual development and enrichment activities wealthier kids have access to, but in the emotional makeup of kids. There is a poverty penalty and not just in the U.S.

“There have been studies suggesting a lot of parents who are wealthier in some cases might be a little more permissive or want their children to be a little bit more creative and autonomous and be children that want careers or be prepared for careers that involve some autonomy. Whereas parents that are more working class may foster less of that,” said Braswell.

Some educators believe society has also lost ways to create structure and self-discipline in the lives of students. Hill said the development of the norm of two-parent working families is one such element because there is less time for a parent to provide structure at home.

“So when those habits are instilled and kids see that they work and that they bring a certain amount of success, then they are more likely to implement those habits when there is not structure around to help them implement it,” said Hill.

Stephens said she disagrees.

Stephens said even in the era when more families had one parent in the home, not all that time was spent parenting. A big chunk of it was doing household management that is more often automated now. For her a more important generational variable is kids today have far less unstructured free play time and more scheduled activities. She said she agrees with Hill that time is important for parents to give to children, and has noticed different approaches to giving this time.

“One of the biggest changes I saw in my career was the amount of involvement in true parenting of children. Dads are much more engaged and that is only good news for children male and female,” said Stephens. She also said the divorce rate has leveled off since the 70s, but parents are managing ex-relationships better.

“I’ve seen an awful lot of good co-parents who weren’t good as marriage partners. But when they have separated or divorced at least they are not telling children, it’s not your fault. They’re showing children by not fighting continually, by sharing some responsibilities,” said Stephens.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Most experts say divorce can be what’s called an adverse childhood experience, an ACE, or a trauma. Goeke said the Illinois Education Association is doing research with hospitals in the Chicago area and starting to recognize trauma manifests in different ways.

“Children that have a high number of these ACEs, their brains develop in a fight or flight mode. The hormones and chemicals in the brain, they are flooded with them constantly. So, when children come to us with a high number of ACEs we notice they are a little more reactionary and they tend to act a little bit differently,” said Goeke. An example would be if a child has a parent with addiction, domestic violence, or mental illness at home, school might well be their safe place, and if they get in a fight at school, Goeke said the old crime and punishment by suspension response is not the best way to handle it because it exposes the child to more trauma.

Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel said he believes the number of kids with multiple traumas is increasing, which presents challenges to classroom teachers. It is not yet clear whether there are more of these wounded kids or schools are doing better at recognizing them. Hill said what is certain is it’s affecting the way teachers have to handle kids.

“We’re now having to pay way more attention to the 'why' underneath the behavior as opposed to the actual behavior itself in the way of helping manage the class,” said Hill. He said teachers used to deal with the conduct alone and expect that would fix the problem, but that is no longer true.

“Good teachers always have. I mean great ones always have. But I also think there was this other level of you could manage your class dealing with just conduct. You could be fairly successful doing that as a teacher and not get to the 'why' all the time. There are more students now who need a more in-depth approach,” said Hill.

Getting to the why is part of the social and emotional learning educators must monitor as well as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Daniel said teachers have to create a community within the classroom. He said it used to be there was no need for communities because you were there to learn and if you didn’t learn, that was your problem. Now, Daniel said society can no longer afford drop-outs because their chance of making a meaningful living is scant.

“It is about making sure we are connecting with our students and forming relationships and working with those students who are isolated or feeling as if what do I have to lose or are so angry that they are going to cause mass harm,” said Daniel.

"You could be fairly successful doing that as a teacher and not get to the 'why' all the time. There are more students now who need a more in-depth approach."

He said research on student belonging shows the key factor is not just sports, but clubs. He said there is a major return from two to three activities but diminishing returns on building relationships after seven-plus.

“I don’t care where the student lives, whether it be an inner-city school, suburban school district or a rural school district, students are students and they need to feel part of the school,” said Daniel.

Technological Changes

Most teachers and education theorists are also still grappling, with ambivalence, with how technology is changing students. Goeke said those teaching now are not digital natives like their students. 

“When I was first beginning to teach, we hadn’t invented cell phones. We hadn’t invented the internet really. All those things are new to us,” said Goeke.

In spite of efforts to adapt embrace and use, Goeke said adults look at tech differently than children do. 

“It used to be you would look at a child’s paper planner. That doesn’t exist anymore. Not many people carry around paper planners. I do and my colleagues make fun of me mercilessly. I had students that would snap a picture of the assignment before they walked out the door. They’re not writing it down. And so it was like a shift for me,” said Goeke.

There is debate whether a lot of screen time delays development of social skills in children. A lot of teachers and childhood experts say they do see differences. Stephens said technology can also enhance development of social skills by encouraging cooperation, sharing, and teamwork.

“We haven’t finessed technology yet. It still is in use with children I believe in the guinea pig stage. And I’m hoping that in 50 years it will look much different than it looks now,” said Stephens.

Teachers have noticed that technology also allows more flexibility in time outside of the classroom. Hill said it is easier to get a hold of classmates for team projects and easier to find information efficiently, but it is also easier to be inefficient.

“I just saw a study the other day about how iPads can be a distraction in the classroom unless there is a real concerted effort to teach students how not to be distracted by a device. We’re not always thinking about the self-management that goes along with having a device,” said Hill.

Children are different today in many ways. Those differences are challenging for teachers who come from a very different background than their students do. This may also press some teachers to get out of the field.

Daniel said he sees a small silver lining, however. He said the Darwinian conditions that lead to teacher attrition, and the teacher shortage, may also have raised the level of the profession compared to years ago.

“Yes, you had occasionally teachers that were, what I’d say outliers, unbelievable instructors. But that wasn’t the norm. Today, I would say we have more excellent teachers, excellent instructors than we have ever had before,” said Daniel.

The challenge remains for school districts to find enough of those teachers and to learn new techniques alongside their students.

Catch up on the rest of GLT's Skipping School series on the state's teacher shortage.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.