I woke up this morning to an article from the Atlantic in my newsfeed: “Why People are Acting so Weird.” The author, Olga Khazan, notes that people have been behaving badly for months in all kinds of venues: from airplanes and airports to hospitals to highways and to every other type of public space. She interviewed more than a dozen experts to understand all this destructive, anti-social behavior; the explanations ranged from extreme pandemic stress to the contagion of rudeness to increasing amounts of alcohol consumption and drug use to the political divide to the social isolation we’ve all experienced over the past two years. It’s a daunting list of potential causes.
The article briefly alludes to an impact on schools but doesn’t dwell there. Still, it should come as no surprise that a society-wide phenomenon would be felt just as keenly in our educational institutions. The full-grown adults who are screaming at each other in check-out lines and causing planes to make unscheduled landings don’t usually live in isolation from children and adolescents. In many cases, those children and adolescents are witnesses to the meltdowns in the first place. One of Khazan’s experts, Richard Rosenfeld, posits, “We’ve got, I think, a generalized sense that the rules simply don’t apply.”
This collapse of norms and concomitant explosion of angry, stressed, destructive behavior is being felt in my own community’s high school, where my husband works as a school psychologist. He was deeply worried about the kids last year when school was all remote. He’s been no less worried this year. Normally not a proponent of the “what-are-we-going-to-do-with-kids-these-days?” line of thinking, he has come home many times this year saying, “this is really something different.” From countless fights to vandalism to students swearing at teachers and continuing on their way (not to class) when asked where they need to be, there’s just a feeling that these last two years have really broken something.
A few weeks ago, a veteran teacher at the school posted a long message on Facebook detailing the struggles of the past few years, noting “I have never been this exhausted, and I have never left so many days of what I believe was solid teaching feeling so utterly defeated. The level of disrespect, anger, entitlement, and blatant disregard for rules and for others I, my colleagues, students, and other community members have witnessed, both first and secondhand, has left many of us feeling overwhelmed.” His message wasn’t a rant; it was long, thoughtful, and heartfelt. The post garnered hundreds of responses over the next few days -- and started a process that resulted in the formation of a team of teachers working on proposed solutions, a special meeting of the Board of Education, two well-attended and live-streamed community forums, and a series of forums with students.
I attended one of the forums last week and a few things stood out:
Teachers are playing a significant – if not primary – role in the process. As the veteran teacher noted in his post: “Teachers and other staff must be essential parts of the decision-making process in the school system. …Administrators have a distinct perspective to share with the community and the board, but it can’t replace or replicate the view from the ‘front row.’” I experienced this “stay-in-your-lane” dynamic in my time on the School Board a decade ago. It was rare that we were allowed to hear from teachers or get their perspectives before we voted on initiatives and changes in the system. When teachers did speak with me, they often wanted to remain unnamed for fear of rebuke. But – happily - at the recent community forums, both administrators and teachers co-hosted the meeting and shared perspectives. Importantly, most of the action steps being taken were the ones proposed by teachers. It remains to be seen whether an appreciation for shared decision-making will be a silver lining to an otherwise awful time, but it was noticeable and it felt right. In terms of Radically Reimagined Relationships (RRR), we’re talking about two Indicators: Shared Purpose and Responsibility and Agency and Trust. Difficult challenges become nearly impossible without these indicators in place.
Students are missing a sense of connection. Another theme of the evening and a perspective shared by teachers and families in some detail is that students feel isolated and disconnected, despite the return to in-person classes. In the Atlantic article, Khazan quotes sociologist Robert Sampson: “We’re more likely to break rules when our bonds to society are weakened. ...When we become untethered, we tend to prioritize our own private interests over those of others or the public.” There was a great deal of discussion at the forum about the need to rebuild community, and quite a few parents noted that while their kids may not be in the disciplinary loop, they are also feeling isolated and disconnected. Several parents described their kids as “going through the motions” of school, doing the minimum and staying under the radar. I’m fully convinced that re-tethering ourselves to each other – throughout society – is more important than just about anything else we do. In RRR terms, we’re talking about the essential foundation of Connection and Belonging.
Our traditional system doesn’t work for everyone. In her opening remarks, the school principal noted that NH law changed a few years ago and students are now required to stay in school until age 18. On its face, more years of education seems positive; unfortunately, the underlying reasons that had previously caused students to drop out of school before age 18 haven’t been adequately addressed. The result is that many of these students don’t see school as something society does for them; rather, school is something done to them, a now-extended ordeal. Until we are able to reimagine and put in place a system that functions differently, this struggle will continue. In addition to Connection and Belonging, students also need to experience Shared Purpose and Responsibility and Agency and Trust, and they need to see how what they are doing is relevant and useful to them – in some way. In short, all the Indicators of RRR need to come into play to solve this one.
As I listened to speakers at the community forum and participated in my table group discussion, I found reasons to feel a little bit of hope: the centering of the professional wisdom of teachers, the number of families that came out and volunteered continued involvement, the early reports that the building was feeling a little calmer and safer. Khazan’s experts “think human interaction will, eventually, return to the pre-pandemic status quo.” I’m hoping we can do better.
Image credit 2: The Keene Sentinel