By Jim Geraghty
A few days ago, I attended my last back-to-school night at our local public middle school. That real-world experience offered a dramatic contrast to the perpetual online brawling today among irate parents, irate teachers and irate politicians over education.
For several years now, I’ve marveled about how our middle school manages to find teachers who are relatively young and energetic (at least for one night of meeting parents) and who seem absolutely thrilled to spend their days attempting to get teenagers grappling with the roller coaster of puberty to absorb some knowledge.
Elementary school kids are adorable, and high-schoolers are taking those exciting first steps into adulthood, but a lot of us would prefer to forget that awkward transition of the middle school years. Some of my son’s classmates don’t look all that different from when they left elementary school, while others have hit monstrous growth spurts and look more like college freshmen. And yet somehow, my child’s teachers seem to love teaching kids in this self-conscious, stumbling stage of life.
The school has its share of problems, of course — an ambitious reconstruction project that has dragged on and on, intermittent discipline issues, and the continuing effort to overcome setbacks from a year of subpar “distance learning” and a few more months of on-and-off in-person learning during the pandemic. Over at the nearby high school, it’s hard to tell whether rumors of commonplace drug use are factual or based on teenage exaggeration and insecure boasts of fearless rule-breaking.P
At the back-to-school meeting, I wondered to what degree Americans’ current heated debates about education are influenced by the actual experiences of students and teachers in classrooms, as opposed to being shaped by bomb-throwing contests elevated by algorithms on social media. You don’t have to look hard to find online examples of outrageous behavior (by students or teachers), or stories of strong ideological views being imposed by teachers or administrators, or titanic struggles over which books to include on a library shelf or in a classroom (often with both sides using wild misrepresentations).Share this articleNo subscription required to readShare
Sure, you can find teachers making disturbing boasts about proselytizing their personal views to children, as tracked by Libs of TikTok, but your child’s teacher is unlikely to be one of them. No, your child’s teacher is probably dealing with matters that are much more mundane but still thorny and persistent. These students aren’t just trying to make up for learning loss from the pandemic; they’re also trying to make up for one to two years’ worth of missing socialization and maturity.
A therapist who works with children told me that many she sees are about two years behind in social development — high school seniors acting like sophomores, younger high-schoolers acting like middle-schoolers, etc. Sometimes this manifests as just misbehaving in class, but sometimes it manifests as fistfights.
After the hard lessons of online learning during the pandemic, lots of schools are trying to figure out how to integrate technology without having students staring at their screens all day. Countless teachers and administrators across the country are also no doubt trying to preserve school safety with reasonable and effective discipline policies, while also trying to ensure that students are challenged to perform to the best of their abilities.
Little of that is likely to be the subject of exciting cable news segments or viral social media posts.
On balance, it is a good thing that, during and after the pandemic, many parents became much more attuned to what their schools were teaching and became much more engaged — even if that meant some shouting at previously staid school board meetings. Parents who show up to complain about the curriculum are parents who care a great deal about their children’s education — better that than apathetic or disengaged parents who just assume everything is going fine.
But as we have these arguments, let’s not let a media ecosystem that is designed to spotlight the atypical and strange create an impression that public education is being hijacked by lunatics and extremists. There are a whole lot of teachers out there who are too busy grading papers, revising lesson plans and, in many cases, buying some class materials with their own money. They don’t have the time or inclination to fight in the culture war.