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The Danger of Teacher Nostalgia

Nostalgia-Pin

 

“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!


 

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Jennifer Gonzalez

Editor-in-Chief at Cult of Pedagogy
Former middle-school language arts teacher and college-level teacher of teachers. NBCT. Mother of 3. All of these experiences have brought me to where I am now: Devoted full-time to helping teachers do their work better.

Latest posts by Jennifer Gonzalez (see all)

Jennifer Gonzalez

Former middle-school language arts teacher and college-level teacher of teachers. NBCT. Mother of 3. All of these experiences have brought me to where I am now: Devoted full-time to helping teachers do their work better.

25 Comments

  1. So true. I really did have my worst class ever this year. They just were. With 16 years of experience, I feel it’s OK for me to recognize that this year presented more issues than ever before. BUT did my students know that as a collective group, they were my hardest yet? No. My team did because I NEEDED them to help me navigate this year, come up with innovative ideas, and I relied on their fresh eyes when mine were tired. Did I warn next year’s teachers? Sure. I had 14 only children this year. 14 out of 30, so the two teachers who would get these kiddos needed to know upfront that kids will need lots of collaboration time because they crave talking to people their age. Collaboration is just good 21st century teaching, but it’s more than that- it’s survival. Thank you for this post. I know that I did far more grumbling than I need to and I will rock this out better in the future. With expenses climbing, people are going to be having less kids, and that’s OK. I am OK. We are OK. I love your blog and your view points! Thanks for cleaning “the lenses” we look through! HUGS!

    • Most of this is wrong. And most teachers today can’t even remember true excellence in education. If you have enough knowledge to experience nostalgia, use the memory for inspiration. It’s probably useless advice in this gone-crazy world where real education takes a backseat to political correctness and the socialistic agenda and the teachers are in a no-win situation, but an effort to use the methods that worked so well for so many years is a good thing.

    • I have encountered many tough children in classrooms. Sometimes these label the class as totally difficult. It is easy to recognize the problems , but difficult at times to find the solutions. I try to remain positive in the classroom but sometimes get trapped into conversations with other teachers making condescending remarks about the students. I try to see each student as an individual striving do do their best. The launch periods at the end of the day help to highlight positive energy portrayed that day. The students love it! This makes for a great return the next day. Forty-five years in the professions and still trying to learn!

  2. This article made me cry. I had a particularly tough group of students my very first year of teaching, and I wish I could go back and do it all over again… Thank you so much for writing this!

  3. As a young, newish teacher, I truly dislike when I get trapped into those conversations with some veteran teachers (some, not all!) I try to be positive and turn things around, but it gets clear very quickly that they don’t want to hear that positive. Or they say something condescending like “Just you wait.”

    Love this article. I’ve had many tough groups, and its challenging to not fall into woe is me, but it is just as challenging to come up with solutions. Those solutions make me better as a teacher. Just another tool in my toolbox for when a similar kid comes knocking on my door, I won’t be so bewildered.

  4. I enjoy reading your articles because there is sooo much I can learn. The problem I have is I am a sub, difficult to build trust & relationships in 6 hours. Here in Oregon we deal with 32 students to 36 (sometimes 40+) and always minimum with some type of behavioral issue. I want to remain positive in the classroom but very difficult to do. I pray by reading your articles it will give me tools to make me a better teacher 😉

  5. Great post Jennifer! Living in the past is never constructive and can be a HUGE turn-off for students. I had a teacher in middle school who seemed like a museum exhibit! All he talked about was the good old days! We couldn’t relate to him!

  6. Perfect timing as we end this school year and start thinking of late summer.

  7. Thanks, Jen!
    I’m sure this Deep Data at-a-Glance Chart is going to be very helpful – I would have never thought of it myself!

  8. “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.” I love this, it will be posted on my desk this year as a reminder.

  9. Wow! It’s like you were a fly on the wall listening in on my team’s conversations. I am a first year teacher and I am surrounded by negativity everyday that sounds like all that you have written here. I can’t help but agree with my coworkers because of the experiences I have had with my students this past year, but at the same time I didn’t want it to be that way. Your post has inspired me to make the change I have been wanting to to get away from my negative thoughts and heart for next year’s students (who are apparently worse than this year’s). I have already read your Marigold article a while back but I was wondering if you had any extra advice in how to talk to my coworkers next year about being positive towards our students, no matter how worse they are claimed to be. They don’t take my positivism seriously because I am a new teacher. I want to actually be happy next year and love what I do instead of dreading each day. Help please!

    • Oh Bridget, I wish I had an easy answer for this. What you want to do is something I have never accomplished myself. Still, I have thoughts all the time about what I would say to my former co-workers if I could go back now and be brave. I would be careful not to directly criticize THEM, for one thing, as that would only put them on the defensive. I would put the focus on myself and my own desire to change, but I would be very transparent about that. Something along the lines of, “I’ve decided that this year I’m going to try to see each student as an individual and not go into the year with any expectations based on what we’ve heard.” Ugh. I can already hear their responses, though…”Yeah, that’ll last about 2 days, Bridget. Good luck with that.”

      I don’t know, see? I’ll think about it. If anyone else has ideas to help Bridget, feel free to chime in!

    • Okay, I’m thinking some more. One approach would be for you to seek out just one person on your team who you think is the least negative of the group. Have the conversation JUST with them so at least you have them in your corner. Can you think of one person?

      • Thank you for your response! I will try being transparent this year and I do have someone in mind. There is another new teacher on my team, an inclusion teacher, so we can rally each other on. Because she is in in my classroom everyday I think I have a good advantage to keep up the positivity at least in my classroom.

        • Hello Bridget, I think another thing you can do is at the end of each class record some positive things that happened in each class. Then when people start to complain about the bad things that are going on in their classes try to talk about the positive things that happened in your classes. This is not to say that you don’t have issues in your classes its just you making a choice to focus on what is going well. Keep in mind the list can be simple. For example, everyone was in their seats by the time the bell rang or little Johnny brought all his school supplies and turned in his assignment. I think making the list is important because you will start to have a record of all the good things that happened over time. Also you can record some of the things that aren’t going right and the soIutions you are going to put in place to solve those problems. You can try a keep a record of what’s solutions are working and the ones that need to be tweaked. This also helps when you are talking to colleagues because they see you are trying to solve instead of just complaing. I hope this helps a little.

        • Hi, Bridget! I am going to reiterate what Jennifer said by saying be brave. You want to be positive and stay positive, so I encourage you to do so. When you can’t get your colleagues on your team, you make them join yours by being optimistic and positive. They still my not buy in and thats ok. I think that’s why you found this post, and the people in this post. Keep coming here, reading ideas, and trying things. Write down what works and what doesn’t. Try to find something good in each potentially negative comment you hear and flip it. I had to do it today. We had a summer book program and only 3 families showed up. A teacher deemed it a failure because she and her child were one of the three. I simply said, “Three is better than none. I’m glad you and your child were able to attend.” That was the end of the conversation. LOL! I could have said, “what’s wrong with these parents? We’re practically coming to your houses with free books, and you won’t even look!” That would have made room for more complaints and negativity. Also, don’t eat in the teacher’s lounge everyday. Eat by yourself 1-3 times a week. Just take a break from the drama sometimes. Get some mental clarity. Reflect on the food things that are happening by yourself. I want to say, it’s nothing personal (I’m sure there are many things you like and respect about your co-workers), but it is personal when it comes to your mental well being. Good luck this year!
          P.S. Keep coming to this blog, and find other blogs to keep you positive, motivated, inspired, and rejuvenated throughout the year.

        • Dear Jennifer and Bridget
          I know exactly how you feel Bridget, Being a new teacher and being terribly enthusiastic about everything I have had the old rolling of the eyes and the negativity you mentioned from more experienced teachers. However, I have the advantage of age, being 53 and having been through a career before teaching I know that this kind of attitude exists everywhere.
          When the comments come out in our staffroom (I must say my current colleagues are just lovely) we turn to Monty Python and the Four Yorkshire men sketch from the Secret Policeman’s ball. It works every time.
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xe1a1wHxTyo

  10. This is such a great article that helps teachers reflect on their attitudes about teaching. I believe that each educator should look at a new year through the eyes of a child. I always look at data from year to year… but don’t count that data until I have tested that child myself. I also feel that building relationships with each child in my classroom really makes a difference in that child’s learning and comfort in the classroom. I feel that reflecting daily upon each days instruction is huge in making sure that the instruction was beneficial for each student… or take note of students who did not understand instruction.. and what better methods I can use to meet that students’ need.
    I am a new teacher to this county and school, however I have taught for 21 years in another county. I understand and have gone through so much in my career, but know that each year I start from scratch.. I listen to information I am given from the previous years, but I only go with what I find when I meet each student in my classroom. Every year is a new one. Every student is different. Every child/student has different experiences at home and at school. My job as an educator is to make learning fun and make sure that each student receives what he or she needs in order to learn. I am always focusing on myself, rather than on the student. I know both is important.

  11. Wow, such a great post. I am a music teacher, so I see all of the kids at my school. This year, I had one teacher complain over and over about how horrible her class was. Were they challenging? A little bit. But they were fun (a little scattered and chatty, but still, fun.) I think it colored her whole year…just wish she had read these great words of wisdom to help her get through the year!

  12. You got it. I see no reason why the teacher/student relationship (individual student and as a collectively class ‘personality’) shouldn’t be treated with the same kind of respect and privacy that we expect at our doctors’ offices. As we unpack more and more understanding of neuroscience, how the brain handles ‘learning’ when the stress hormone cortisol is action, and as we attempt to help kids internalize the ‘growth vs fixed’ mindset, we truly wield incredible power in choosing not to engage in the kind of tongue-wagging that is so very strong a temptation after a grueling day. And consider how much more difficult we’re making it for new teachers entering with a true desire to remain unbiased. We end up holding mental storehouses of personal information about children who deserve to have their foolishness, their emotional outbursts, their choices borne from insecurities and fear remain in our memories, rather than passed on as labeled baggage awaiting them at their next fresh start. If we don’t pretend to have forgotten past mistakes and goofs (even serious goofs) – trusting that great accomplishments lie ready for the taking, how on earth would they believe such a thing?

  13. Great food for thought. I plead guilty as a teacher who has particpated in teacher nostalgia. I have said, “kids are bad these days. I dont remember us being this had in school.” However, when I really think about it, we were probably worse. To help me overcome this challenge, I strongly believe in second chances. My class this year was challenging, but not so much to me as to other teachers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an elementary school teacher and 3 of my students were on probation and a different student was expelled for the remainder of the year. So, the there were some issues. I heard all the stories about my upcoming kids and their behavior. I knew who each and every no homework doing, sleeping in class, thieving, dishonest, instigating, bullying students in my class was before the first day of school. I also knew who the straight a, book loving, never absent, students were too. My response has always been the same, “People change.” I like to give my students the benefit of the doubt each year. Most time this works for the students, and they appreciate the fact that I don’t judge them. But most importantly, it works for me because the relationship between my students and I is at the forefront of my teaching. They have never had me before so they deserve me at my best and judgment free.

  14. Thank you for this article Jennifer. I moved to a different school 2 years ago and this “syndrome” was rampant- I couldn’t put a name on it then. I’m probably guilty of some things you mentioned (“at my old school”) but your article will change me from a better teacher for my future students to the BEST teacher. Also a better colleague.

  15. Thanks for the article. I work with undergraduate teachers at a university in Peru and i could not explain better what happends to them. Most of them were unhappy this semestee going to class because of their beliefs about their students and their lack of compromise. But the truth is that they change what they want to. I will share the article with them befor starting next month.

  16. “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”
    -Socrates
    (yeah, like circa 400 BC or something!)
    Great post! Thanks for covering this topic.

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