I recently return-ed to teaching after being away for some time raising my family and working in business. Either the kids have changed or I have. Many of them seem to have an "attitude"-- even some of my best students. It seems as though I'm the only one working hard in my classroom. Am I imagining things? What is going on here?
It has been more than 10 years since I was in a school setting all day every day, so the observations I'm going to share with you come from others rather than from my own personal observations.
As my husband and I travel the country doing workshops for teachers and principals about raising achievement, they share their frustrations regarding their students' lack of effort, respect and responsibility. Until recently I had not been able to put my finger on where these "attitudes" were coming from. It was easy to blame it on working parents, ineffective teachers, poverty, or lowered school standards.
But, then I encountered an article in the summer issue of the American Educator magazine. The article is titled "Bad Attitude: Confronting the Views that Hinder Students' Learning." It ought to be required reading for every teacher, principal, and parent.
The author, Vincent Ryan Ruggiero, is a university professor whose research and writings focus on changing students' bad attitudes. He has some excellent ideas that could be implemented both at home and in schools. You can access the article for yourself at the website of the American Federation of Teachers and download in a Portable Document Format at (http://www.aft.org/publications/american_educator/summer2000/index.html).
For those who prefer a shorter version, here is my summary of the article.
Professor Ruggiero's views immediately resonated with my sense of what is happening in families and classrooms. The essence of his hypothesis is captured in this quotation. He says, "Good and bad character are now known as 'personality differences.' Rights have replaced responsibilities… A revolution has taken place in the vocabulary of self. Words that imply responsibility or accountability -- self-criticism, self-denial, self-discipline, self-control, self-effacement, self-mastery, self-reproach, and self-sacrifice are no longer in fashion. The language most in favor is that which exalts the self -- self-expression, self-assertion, self-indulgence, self realization, self-approval, self-acceptance, self-love, and the ubiquitous self-esteem."
Kids are coming to school believing that it is the teacher's job to entertain them. Unfortunately, many teachers have bought into this idea as well, and instead of working to change the attitudes of their students, they have decided to turn their classrooms into Sesame Street and Discovery Zone.
If these attitudes, or any variations of them, sound painfully familiar to you, perhaps reading Ruggiero's article or his book, "Changing Attitudes: A Strategy for Motivating Students to Learn" (Allyn and Bacon, 1998) will give you some ammunition to fight.
Where have these attitudes come from and what can parents and teachers do about them? Ruggiero suggests that mass culture -- entertainment, books, newspapers, magazines, music, radio, television, and the advertising industry are the culprits in this widespread brainwashing.
If you don't have cable TV, don't get it. If you still don't let your children attend R-rated movies before they go off to college, hold your ground. If your children are part of an excellent youth group at church and/or a sports or extracurricular activity at school led by an individual who believes in discipline, responsibility, right and wrong, hard work, and respect, count yourself and your children most fortunate.
Here's what we're up against in our homes and our schools as we battle what mass culture is popularizing. Ruggiero explains. "In opposition to active living, mass culture promotes a spectator mentality and desire to be entertained." I heard a young mother explain why she turns on the TV the minute her children came home from school. "They really need to relax and just veg out. School is so demanding." Whatever happened to playing, pretending, imagining, painting, building, or reading? Don't kids do chores anymore like setting the table for dinner or picking up their rooms?
"In opposition to a moral standard, mass culture extols doing whatever feels good." This pervasive attitude makes it essential that parents stop defending their children when they break the rules or the law. Stop trying to get them out of serving their detentions or their suspensions when they do destructive and dangerous things.
This kind of attitude makes it imperative that school faculties band together as one to create a culture and climate in their school that sends the same message to all students and parents: "We believe that all students can and must learn. We expect all students to put forth as much effort to learn as we expend effort to teach."
Shortly after the Columbine tragedy, the Colorado State Board of Education met to discus the horrendous happening. They issued the following statement which should serve as a wakeup call to all of us. "While our schools are at once the mold and the mirror of the democratic society they serve, they are not democracies themselves. Schools are founded and controlled by adults for the benefit of children.
"The adults accountable for running schools must have the courage, ability, and authority to establish and maintain a safe and orderly environment maximally consonant with the purposes of schooling, i.e. the fullest possible achievement for every single child."
All of us need to wake up and start confronting fallacious thinking, destructive attitudes, and debilitating values in our students and children for what they are. Ruggerio summarized it this way: "The sharper and more complete one's awareness of a phenomenon, the more fully it can be understood and evaluated."
Elaine is a former teacher, librarian, principal, and district administrator. She has an Ed.D. in educational administration and is the author of more than two dozen books for parents and educators. You can visit her web site at http://www.elainemcewan.com.