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“This is the worst group we’ve ever had.”
When I hear a teacher say this, I know those students are in trouble: The person in charge of their well-being, the tone of their classroom, and their opportunities to grow has decided they are beyond saving.
They never look up from their phones, we say. They have this attitude of entitlement. They have no respect for authority. No respect for themselves.
We warn our colleagues: “Just wait till next year when you get this group.”
Over lunch, we share anecdotes. The shocking thing that one kid said. The outfit this one showed up in.
And as we ruminate on the many ways our students fall short, we can’t help but settle into nostalgia: It wasn’t like this before.
…at my other school.
…with last year’s group.
…when I was a student.
These conclusions don’t come from nowhere. They start when something goes wrong: a missed assignment, a lesson gone bad, a hostile email, an act of aggression. Hurdles appear that were never there before. Teaching gets harder, and we try to figure out why. We notice things, we start to see patterns, and we construct generalizations to help us make sense of it all. The first step toward fixing any problem is to diagnose it.
But when we settle for a “kids today” diagnosis, romanticizing the past and blaming our teaching problems on the collective inferiority of a generation, we only make things worse.
What’s Wrong with a Little Nostalgia?
It sounds so innocuous, doesn’t it? Nostalgia. I think of those Country Time Lemonade commercials, with grandpa on the porch reminiscing about his boyhood, the late afternoon sun playing across his face. It’s just looking back on the good times. How could that be a bad thing?
It depends entirely on the impact: Nostalgia for the past is toxic when it makes us feel contempt toward the present. And that toxicity works itself into our classrooms in some pretty destructive ways.
It Feeds on Itself
The problem with comparing the current batch of kids to an earlier group is that it puts a negative lens in front of our eyes. Through that lens, we start to view even ordinary, age-appropriate behavior as bad. We will treat the whole group as if they are always up to no good, or all lack motivation, or are all narcissistic, entitled little farts.
Then, through the magic of confirmation bias, we start to find more and more evidence to support that conclusion, which in turn is likely to generate a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby students actually start behaving more like narcissistic, entitled little farts. If several teachers regularly report these incidents to each other, the lens just grows thicker, thereby assuring that few students in this group stand a chance of ever being seen as individuals.
It Blocks Relationships
Building strong relationships with students is arguably the most important factor in student and teacher success. And when we decide that “this group” has some kind of undesirable trait compared with “that group,” we prevent ourselves from really getting to know this group as individuals. It’s kind of a done deal.
In his book, You’ve Gotta Connect: Building Relationships that Lead to Engaged Students, Productive Classrooms, and Higher Achievement, high school teacher Jim Sturtevant* warns teachers about the impact nostalgia can have on their ability to connect with students. “When nostalgia takes you away from the students that you have been blessed with the power to influence, it is far from harmless. This moment is all we ever have with each student. Nostalgia can absolutely detour efforts to accept a student for what she or he is in this moment.”
It Lets Us Shirk Responsibility
If we stamp an entire batch of students with a problematic label, we get a pass. It’s not me, it’s them. It’s the parents. It’s society! This country! The world today!
Taking this stance is convenient, because it means we don’t have to try. We don’t have to look at our own practices and find the spots that need improvement. It means we don’t have to fail. Sadly, it also means that whatever problem we’re experiencing will never actually improve. And even if it does, it certainly won’t be due to anything we did.
Here’s the thing: A whole lot of our nostalgia might be true. Kids today might actually be more challenging. Teaching is undoubtedly harder than it used to be. But so what? If we stop there, throw up our hands and start counting the days to retirement, we lose. And so do our students. We can do better than that.
How to Get Over Nostalgia and Work in Reality
Tap Into Mindfulness
One big key to overcoming this kind of damaging nostalgia is to practice nonjudgmental mindfulness, to pay close attention to exactly what’s in front of you and just take it in without judging it as good or bad; simply notice and accept things as they are.
Does that mean letting students do whatever they want? Ignoring harmful or destructive behavior? No. Maintain your expectations, deliver appropriate consequences, just work on how you feel about these exchanges. Instead of interpreting a student’s behavior as more evidence of his inferiority or poor character, just deal with the behavior. You’re still doing your job, but with a change in how you look at it, you no longer have that harmful added layer of judgment. In How to Practice Nonjudgmental Mindfulness, counselor Laura Schenck explains, “Releasing judgment does not mean that you “approve” of things that violate your true values. It means allowing yourself to move into a place of emotional stillness, peace, and acceptance of what is.”
Another benefit to practicing mindfulness is that it helps you more clearly see the things that are working, to notice the students who are behaving, caring for each other, respecting your guidelines, and trying their best. On days when my classroom started to feel out of control, I would sometimes stop teaching, sit down, and write in a notebook, often recording the names of students who were behaving, rather than listing the ones I wanted to punish. This helped me shift my focus away from the problems and give some energy to the things that were going right.
Look Back with Accuracy
Sometimes, rather than compare students to previous groups, we compare them to ourselves. Maybe you were a great student. Plenty of teachers were; we loved school so much we became teachers. But a lot of students in your peer group were not like you; because you were a kid, you didn’t know about all the problems that were being handled while you were out at recess or sitting on the carpet for story time. You didn’t know about all the homework that didn’t get turned in or the other kids’ low quiz scores. And if you were the kind of kid who turned work in on time and never talked back, if your handwriting was neat and your clothes completely free of rips or questionable slogans, you’re in a perfect position to be incredibly judgmental of every student who isn’t just like you were. And that’s a whole heck of a lot of kids.
So if that’s the case, instead of thinking about how you were as a student, try widening that lens a bit and remember some of the other kids you went to school with. Not everyone was an excellent student. Not everyone behaved. And now that you’re the one in charge, they are all yours.
Love the Ones You’re With
The only real cure for a bad case of nostalgia is to focus entirely on the students right in front of you, to set aside whatever visions you might have of past students and fall in love with these people.
And that can only happen if you make a real effort to get to know them. Ask questions about their lives and record that information somewhere (I have a chart that can help you here). And get to know their “stuff.” Instead of judging their music, have them play their favorite songs for you and tell you why they like them so much. Watch some of their movies, then talk about them with your students. Play around with the apps they use. Have them give you a lesson on all those abbreviations they use, then let them quiz you.
Where will you find the time for this? You have content to cover and assessments to give. But it doesn’t have to be all that time-consuming: We’re just talking about five minutes at the end of class every now and then. I promise you, it will be worth it. It might even turn what could have been the worst group you ever had into a collection of real people you actually kind of like. ♥
* Thank you to Jim Sturtevant for introducing me to the concept of nostalgia as a teacher problem. This idea resonated so much with me when I read his book a few years ago that I wanted to devote a whole post to it!