Some people will read this and call me old-school or disgruntled. Some might say I was a bad teacher and the educational system is lucky I left. Some will say I’m stuck in the “back in my day” mentality and don’t have a clue about modern society.
I’m not here to argue with any of that. But I am here to say this--our educational system is failing in big ways. It’s failing teachers, which is why I left. But it’s also majorly failing students, whether we want to admit it or not.
During my ten years as a teacher, I knew there were problems, especially in the last few years. But now that I’ve left, my vision is even clearer. More than that, my voice can be louder in ways it never could be when I was under the scrutiny of the public education system. So, for all the teachers out there who can’t raise their voices because they’re still in the heat of it, I write this article to spread awareness of the beliefs so many of us hold but no longer witness in the current state of academics. These are the beliefs that made me go into teaching in the first place—and their absence in the classroom is what made me leave.
I know that what I mention isn’t the result of the school I taught in. Instead, it really is an epidemic nationwide in failing public schools across all states. I hope when you read this, if you’re a teacher, you know you’re not alone. And I hope if you’re not a teacher, you realize that we MUST do better. Somehow, someway, we need to do better.
1.Accountability for actions is a good thing.
One of the main reasons I left teaching was because of the lack of accountability for students. Talk to any teacher these days, and they’ll tell you that discipline has gone out the window. This shift happened before the pandemic, but COVID-19 definitely had a negative effect on students’ accountability for actions. It’s not the only reason, though. A permissive school atmosphere, pressure from parents, and a warped state of the educational system has annihilated the accepted moral that actions have consequences.
Most days, it feels like the classroom has become an excuse factory for behaviors as well as a blame-game for educators. A kid swore at you? Well, what did you as the teacher do to provoke it? Students are violent, acting out, threatening you? Well, they must just be bored or frustrated. They don’t pay attention in class? It’s not their fault.
I can’t tell you how many times as a teacher in my final years I heard the excuse, “Well, this isn’t fun for me.” We’ve somehow taught students that if something isn’t fun, it isn’t worthwhile and means they don’t have to follow rules. We’ve also taught them that teachers deserve zero respect, a fact they tout frequently in the classroom—and use as a valid excuse for their behavior.
It also hardened me to see how the lack of respect and downright toxic behaviors toward teachers really leads to a sexist atmosphere, too. In the past few years, I’ve witness numerous male students being horrible to female teachers, verbalizing egregious sentiments in front of the class and using the direct statement that they just don’t respect female teachers as adequate reasoning. Somehow, to my sheer horror, that seems to be acceptable in the world we live in. I’ve even had parents cite that their child just doesn’t respect women, as if that excuses the degrading sentiments uttered to me, the flippant attitudes, and the unwillingness to follow rules.
One of the scariest aspects of this, I think, is to think of all the female students witnessing vile treatment of a woman in charge. What are we teaching future generations about the power and worth of women? And really, what are we teaching generations about the treatment of humans in general? Things that are spouted to teachers in the classroom or violent behaviors that are treated as nothing more than an insignificant outburst are behaviors that I wouldn’t accept anywhere in this world to any human being. Yet teachers are being subjected to violent behaviors, physical altercations, demeaning statements, and scathing lies daily—with seemingly little or no repercussions.
Sure, you can say we signed up for this. Admittedly, a large portion of education courses involve classroom management discussions. None of us expect perfect children sitting with hands folded and only mannerly words every day. We understand that when you work with humans and especially teenagers, there are going to be conflicts. What we didn’t sign up for, though, is to be belligerently mistreated, discriminated against, belittled, and even threatened on an hourly basis by students who then have little to no consequences. We also didn’t sign up to go on the witness stand anytime we deem that consequences are necessary, yet that has become the trend in schools across the country. We are constantly having to gather evidence that being called a “bitch” in the classroom or having the stapler thrown wasn’t the result of something we did or didn’t do.
Somehow, as a society and a system, we’ve taught our kids that certain behaviors are acceptable if they have the right excuse. We’ve taught them to blame everyone but themselves and that culpability doesn’t apply. This dangerous game we’re playing in the education world isn’t just leading to impossible environments for educators and students to learn in—it’s resulting in kids who don’t understand how to take responsibility for actions, which is a dangerous game to play in the adult world that doesn’t take away detentions because you were having a bad day.
2.Most teachers are qualified for their job and deserve to be treated as such.
Now that I’m out of the classroom, it boggles my mind to see how teachers are questioned, interrogated, and mistrusted for doing their job. Are there bad teachers out there? Certainly, just like in any field. Yet it seems like the harder a teacher works, the more education they receive, and the more qualified they are in their area of expertise, the more they’re questioned, berated, and forced to prove their worth daily.
I am a USA Today Bestselling author with an extensive resume of published works. Still, I was consistently berated by kids and parents for my writing assignments, editing suggestions, and methods of teaching. I was told my methods of teaching writing were ineffective. I was told I wasn’t qualified to grade a paper by students and parents. I was told I didn’t know enough about writing to teach it.
Despite all the impressive accomplishments on their resumes, most teachers are treated as less than worthy of standing in front of a classroom. Gone are the days of teachers being seen as experts in their content area. Instead, they are constantly deemed by the Google era as insufficient at their jobs and knowledge.
I didn’t realize how much this wears on your psyche until I left. Now that I’m gone from that toxic environment, I understand my worth. I understand I deserve to put my skills to use somewhere where they are appreciated, not where they are constantly questioned and undermined.
Google can only go so far. It’s time we understand that yes, teachers are qualified to not only understand their content area, but to provide ways for others to learn it. We need to stop being so adversarial toward the teaching profession and understand that teachers really do have skill sets, ideas, concepts, and learning to offer.
3.Academics should come first.
I’ll be the first to say—there are things that are more important than school at times. A family crisis, a mental health crisis, the loss of a loved one. There are all sorts of challenges students face because they are human. We all have our days, our seasons of life that are valid reasons to not give something 100% of our attention.
Still, I grew up believing that education and academics were the key to success. Learning was how you figured out who you were and how you opened up doors for yourself. Education was the way to open up more possibilities so you had the choice to pursue what you really wanted.
This doesn’t mean you have to go to college to be successful, and it doesn’t mean that learning will guarantee you an easy, successful life. This means, though, that not just in school, but in life, learning is crucial to advancing who you are as a person and understanding how the world works. It means that the more you know, the more opportunities are within your grasp because you have the knowledge you need to pursue your goals. You have the ability to find the information you don’t have. You have the ability to make connections, to understand how you fit into the scheme of things, and how to continue to grow.
In modern education, though, it feels like academics have taken the backseat. We let students slide through so our school doesn’t show any failures. We give students who have done zero work half credit so we don’t ruin their confidence. We give students chance after chance after chance to try, and when they don’t, we blame the teacher for not working harder to motivate them. We teach them if they sit back and do nothing, someone will come along to make it all better, a concept that works nowhere else in the real world.
We promote sporting events, extracurriculars, and social media over learning. We tell students it’s okay to do this, that being well-rounded matters more anyway. We tell them that they only have to do work if they want to, another concept that doesn’t always fare well in life after high school.
As a former band nerd who was in all of the ensembles, I know the benefits of extracurriculars. I do. But I also think that when academics take the backseat to everything else, we fail to teach students the real value of learning. We strip them of the intrinsic value of an inquisitive mind, of exploration, and of knowledge. We teach them that they don’t need to care about history or know basic math to be successful. In a growing world full of challenges, it’s a disservice for our kids, no matter where they end up, and it’s a disservice to society. The fundamental knowledge that helps create revolutionary thinkers, dreamers, inventors, and doers has taken a backseat. We’ve taught our students that learning doesn’t matter—and in a world that provides endless opportunities and needs for daily learning, this lost skillset will certainly have an impact.
4.Cell phones and technology are killing the education system.
Sometimes, it feels like the school system is trying to be the cool mom from the movie Mean Girls. Truly. You want to play on your phone all day? Cool, cool. We’ll allow it. You want to play games on your laptop? Yeah, cool, we’ll just say it’s for educational purposes but give teachers zero potential to monitor it.
A big shift in our education system happened when cell phones were accepted into classrooms. Sure, you can argue they were always there. Ten years ago, students were sneaking on their phones during class. But it wasn’t as brazen, as accepted, and as impossible to fight. Now, not only are teachers fighting the war to teach students who are told academics don’t matter, their actions are someone else’s fault, and learning is irrelevant, but they have to do all of that while fighting for their attention against social media. Additionally, bullying during school has reached new heights as the phone in everyone’s hand makes social media attacks on each other possible all day long—even during time in the classroom.
We’ve taken away the boundary of fun and school, which sure, teenagers love—but at what cost? We’ve taught them that you don’t need to focus and that social media takes precedence over any hard work. We’ve taught them to rush through their work for the sake of getting it done so they can hop on Snapchat or the next big thing. We’ve taught them how to stay so wrapped up in the warped world of social media that they never come up for air.
And because of that, we’ve taken away the value of learning, the simplicity in a true discussion, in reading, in exploring content to better one’s self. We’ve digitalized the educational experience—and taken all of the creativity, analysis, and discovery from the process of learning. I am terrified of what this will mean for our world as a whole, if I’m being honest. Because for a generation with information at their fingertips, more than a few can’t tell you how many letters are in the alphabet or any prominent historical facts. Few can tell you what a noun is or remember to use capital letters in a professional document.
I’m not dissing this generation—I’m dissing the system that allowed this to happen. Because when you take away the value of learning, add distractions willingly to the classroom, tell them that teachers have no value and that learning doesn’t matter, how could you expect otherwise?
5.You learn the most when you are challenged.
In ninth grade, I had the most difficult teacher of my life for biology. Students avoided taking his class because he was notorious for excessively high standards, his booming voice of authority, and his huge workload for his students. That class was hell on Earth sometimes. I would spend weekends crying over projects only to have points deducted for a crooked line of text, and I would have a week to memorize all the bones in a frog. It was grueling.
But you know what else it was? A great preparation for the real world, which isn’t easy. In that class, I learned what I was capable of. I learned that hard things weren’t impossible. I learned that I was smart, capable, and strong. I learned the value of determination. I learned how to prepare for a life of not only college, but of life in the “real world,” where there always hard things to face. He prepared me for success. Now, when something feels impossible, I remind myself that I can, in fact, do hard things.
These days, I see so many posts online and often heard in the classroom why challenging students shouldn’t be our goal. We were forbidden from giving too much homework to our upper-level students and then encouraged not to give it at all. If students were struggling with a challenging project, we were told to consider how we could make it easier for them. In essence, I felt like we became an excuse factory. You didn’t do the project because you were tired? Bored with it? Didn’t feel like it? Okay. That’s completely okay. You don’t have to.
As an educator and a lifelong learner, the idea that we need to make school easier for students is disappointing. Not because I wanted to watch kids fail. On the contrary. I wanted to see them succeed. I wanted to prepare them for what I knew would be a challenging road ahead. Because when is adult life easy? There are all sorts of obstacles in life that you have to learn how to handle in order to find your best life. It isn’t about knowing all the bones of the frog—it’s about knowing that when things feel impossible, you are capable of handling it. That confidence doesn’t come from dumbing down curriculum or excusing students to step back when the bar feels too high. It’s about pushing them to find what they’re capable of—instead of coddling them until they feel comfortable.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is this—whether you believe it or not, the education system in our country is in trouble. Teachers are leaving the field right and left, and for good reason. As a former educator and as a lover of learning, I am heartbroken at this realization that our academics are falling short.
Still, until we understand as a society that what we’re doing isn’t working for teachers and certainly isn’t working for students, the system will keep crumbling. I’m afraid when we finally wake up, there will be nothing left.
To the teachers still fighting the “good fight,” know that it’s okay if you deem the fight isn’t possible right now. It’s okay to prioritize yourself, to pursue a better environment, and to put yourself first. Most of all, know that you are not alone. Just because people are afraid to talk about it doesn’t mean they aren’t experiencing it, too. I hope if nothing else, this article gives you the confidence to know that you are not a bad person for feeling frustrated, hopeless, and angry at a system that is failing.
L.A. Detwiler is the USA Today Bestselling author of The Widow Next Door with HarperCollins UK as well as twenty other novels. She formerly taught high school English for over ten years and is currently a Communications Specialist at a local corporation. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, their cats, and their Great Dane.
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USA TODAY Bestselling Thriller author with Avon Books (HarperCollins), The Widow Next Door, The Diary of a Serial Killer's Daughter, and other creepy thriller books