Earlier this week, one of my colleagues sent a message in our English teachers' group chat. She told us that over 50% of her seniors were currently set to fail for the year. This is not because her classwork is too difficult or that she doesn't care enough to help them - she had sent emails home to them and their parents, and though some had responded with concern, nothing had changed throughout the week. No urgency, no late work turned in, no emotional reaction whatsoever. On Friday, she printed progress reports and handed them out to all of her failing students with missing assignments highlighted and specific steps to get back on track. She offered up her planning periods for students to remediate with her. What happened when they were confronted with the reality that they will not graduate high school if they continue on in the same fashion?
They simply continued on in the same fashion. They flipped the progress reports over and continued to scroll on their phones or fall asleep at their desks.
And it's not just my colleague experiencing this sort of complacency, which is how I know it's not her fault half of her students are failing. My juniors are gearing up for their final state-required exams - for English, they must pass them to graduate - the majority of them are not ready, and they simply don't care. They scroll through TikTok all class long, most without even trying to hide it, even though the rule in my classroom is that phones must stay in backpacks unless there is an emergency. I emailed all of my students and their parents to remind them of this policy and express my concerns a few weeks ago, and although I had a handful of supportive parents respond (as my colleague did), next to nothing changed after the fact. The kids whose parents said they would have a conversation with them are still distracted and disengaged.
Why can't I take their phones away, you ask? Well, I'm simply not allowed. That's a rant for another day, so I won't get into it right now.
I am only eight years out of high school myself. And in saying this, I don't mean to sound like a cranky old millennial, but things have become so different in those eight short years. Our phones did not get service inside the school building and we did not have access to the school's Wi-Fi, so there was no use even trying to use them for social media or games on the internet. We did not have personal devices, so that eliminated the same problem on laptops, which is just as prevalent today as phone distractions. If we were caught with a device out when it shouldn't have been, it was simply taken. A lot of my students use the excuse that they need their phone to text their parents while in class, but eight years ago had I texted my mom during the school day, she would have replied, "WTF are you doing on your phone right now? 😡"
If a teacher slid a paper on my desk that warned me I would not graduate high school unless I got my shit together, and quick, I would break down and cry on the spot. Admittedly, I likely never would have let the problem escalate to that point, but that's part of our current problem too. All the teachers I know are at their wits end with student apathy and willing disengagement. How can we reach students who are barely there? They don't care that they're in the trenches, and they don't want help. It seems they would rather continue on doing nothing, as if the warnings we're giving aren't warranted. As if, somehow, they will still get through to graduation without a consequence. Not only does it feel like blatant disrespect, but it's scary to watch.
Last story for now: I recently looked out at my class of fourteen juniors who were supposed to be watching a short video on the board - ten of them were on their phones. I paused the video and got on them a bit: "Guys, I just sent messages to your parents about this a few days ago. We talked about this. Put the phones in your backpacks, all of you. I don't want to see them."
As soon as they did, they put their heads down and fell asleep. It was like they had been powered off.
This is where it really gets concerning for me - it becomes clear that this is not just a disregard for my rules, and not even a disregard for what I'm trying to teach them. It's a psychological problem. It's an invisible chain tightening around their necks. The majority of my students cannot function without distraction. They don't know what to do with silence or simplicity. They can't focus without the constant pull of notifications, music, breaking news, new stories, more likes, change the song, check the DMs, Snap them back, keep the streak, refresh the feed, feed the algorithm. I'm afraid they're incapable because it's all they know - it's all most of them have been surrounded by for their entire lives. How can we expect them to sit still and get work done when they don't know how to sit with just one thing? How could they even begin when they couldn't focus on the vital information in the first place?
It's ironic: I've been teaching my juniors media literacy for the past few months, but they're not engaged enough to get the message they so desperately need. We'll be watching "The Social Dilemma" in a few weeks, but they likely won't listen as it highlights the dangers of all they are so deeply immersed in.
Is there a connection between phone addiction and students' struggles with completing work to the point of jeopardizing their graduation? I'm not sure I can measure that, but I do know the common thread between these two issues (and many others) teachers are trying to get a handle on boils down to one thing: astounding apathy.
Apathy has infected our school and many others - perhaps the majority of them. I believe there are a number of reasons for this. As previously mentioned, teachers in my area are severely limited on the amount of intervention we can actually give when students are distracted and unengaged with our classes, or with school in general. We can't take away phones, we can't make them go back to class when they've been walking around with their friends in the hallways for over half an hour. We can't even really threaten them with the promise that they won't graduate, because our grading policies are so lenient that most of them will still scrape by, somehow.
Another thing about apathy is that it spreads. Students who have been in the trenches for a while continue their patterns, and others eventually catch on that there is no real consequence for their peers' behavior. Slowly, others start to mimic it. This is why structure is so important for teachers wherever we can possibly create it: if I say "no devices," but one student wants to read his book online and I allow it, everyone else sees this and ignores my initial instruction. And that makes sense. Of course they follow after the thing they want. Even though the first student is technically on-task, just using a device to do so, the others won't necessarily do this. They'll play online chess when I'm not looking.
But the final reason I'll mention is quite different, and after my long bouts of immense frustration with my students, after hundreds of vent-sessions over lunch in the work room, I've become surprisingly blind to it. After my colleague told me about her kids' failures, another walked out of the room with me. As we traveled down the hall, he said, "I think we're forgetting that these kids started high school in the middle of a pandemic."
That was all he had to say, and then I understood. No wonder the school climate has taken a 180° turn from eight years ago. I wasn't a learning, growing child in the midst of the world chronically feeling like it could crash and burn at any moment. I wasn't trying to get all A's and B's, looking for a prom dress, keeping up with my friend groups, doing extracurriculars, holding up my first job, learning to drive, growing into my body and doing hours of homework while millions of people were dying and no one could leave their houses with full safety. After that one sentence, it became so clear. Their world is so uncertain. Their futures don't feel like a given the way mine did. No wonder they find it so hard to care.
I may be overwhelmed and frustrated by this wave of apathy as someone whose job is to lead the upcoming generation of adults - it feels bleak for me to let them out into this uncertain world, as I'm truly not sure many of them have the skills to thrive within it. But one thing I refuse to do is give up. How can I lift the cloud of apathy and spark some hope for the future? Well, it certainly won't be done overnight, and I definitely won't be able to reach every single one of them. Knowing that is important as to not run myself into the ground trying. But I know there are ways to lighten the load. It is possible to turn the power back on and reconnect after so many childhoods spent in the dark, biding time, trying so desperately to look away. Knowing it's possible, I believe, is the most critical step.
Beyond that, I see my many amazing colleagues putting their extra effort into places that really need it. They don't worry so much about the data and grading quickly and making sure all the trainings are done. They focus on connection and relationships - something my school does so incredibly well with, overall. They write inspiring messages on their boards, they pass out snacks in the hallways during class changes. Many times as you walk by our classrooms, you'll hear teachers just chatting and letting students engage in some real conversation, no curriculum necessary. I take a few days out of the year to plan trips to the library, set up game stations at group tables, and invite students to be present with each other. Many of their assignments allow them to work in groups, and as I walk around I hear great conversations most of the time. They ask for help and want to know they're doing well, when we're in these modes. That in and of itself is a 180° turn from the apathy and distraction. It's amazing how much can change when just a few people in a room are willing to interact.
Though times are tough in the schools these days, post-pandemic and still very much in the trenches of uncertainty, I do believe there is hope for a turnaround. I see signs of it all over the place even now - it's just a matter of keeping an eye out for them. In this career path, we have to keep an eye on hope, on growth, and on the smallest of wins. If we don't, we lose our own spark. I have walked that line more this year than I ever have before, and hearing from my older colleagues that it just keeps getting harder lets me know I don't feel this way simply because I'm still new-ish. It's practically an entirely new profession from the old days (of five years ago), so much so that I often look back at my Masters program and realize it could not have prepared me for half of the career I've stepped into.
But if I've learned nothing else in my whirlwind of a teaching career, it's that we need each other more intimately than we ever have before. If we hope to reengage, we have to be so real, so present, and so unabashedly human with our students, that it may feel a bit uncomfortable for us and for them. We have to be vulnerable, and honest, and personable. It will feel unprecedented, because it is.
But in this context, unlike everything else, unprecedented is a positive. Rather than a warning, it's a beacon.