When I was a high school social studies teacher for 31 years, I concluded that public schools are where American culture wars are often fought — or dumped on to solve the nation’s problems.
The problem is that public schools are not equipped to carry the weight of that responsibility. Our culture war emphasis is on individualism and freedom, but we often forget that the need to “promote the general welfare” is also part of our Constitution. What makes the nation strong is to be “both/and”, not either/or.
I’ve been retired from teaching in a public high school for sixteen years, so I contacted three teachers from two districts (Auburn and White River), all who have/had children in the Enumclaw School District. I needed updates on the state of schools today. One of the teachers works in an elementary school, one a middle school, and one in a high school.
The first question I asked them was: 1) How have the gender cultural changes with restrooms and trans/bi kids affected educators in your schools? (Note: Washington state law requires schools allow students to use the bathroom that correlates to their gender identity; the Enumclaw School District does have single-stall, non-gendered restrooms in their buildings’ nurse’s office for students, but multi-stall restrooms are segregated by gender.)
All three told me the same thing: Gender and restrooms are not an issue in their schools. That surprised me because of what we hear on the national news, and the concerns about this topic. It may be a problem in Georgia, Florida, or Texas, but not in small-town King and Pierce Counties. Gender and restrooms have become politically weaponized and are polarizing on a national level. Apparently, this issue is a topic to get reelected on, but they are not an issue locally.
2): How are students today different from 5-10 years ago?
Anxiety and distractions seem to be common problems at all grade levels right now. Social media can often cause depression, especially among girls with self-esteem issues. Boys get caught up in video games. It can also cause distractions when students tune in to their phones instead of to the lessons being presented by the teacher. Students do better when not using phones during class time. “It’s the kids who are well adjusted and most self-confident who are not phone dependent”, according to the middle school teacher. Cell phones are designed to be addictive. The needier the student, the more distracting the phone becomes.
3): How have the children/teens been affected by all the cultural changes: CRT, “Don’t say gay”, parent control of education and chaos at school board meetings, etc.?
Students are affected by divisive comments and the amount of disinformation in the media. All three teachers told me that Critical Race Theory is not and has not been taught in schools. It is not an issue. The issue of “Don’t say gay” seems only to be a problem for the governor of Florida and its legislature. Among the three districts in my area, only Enumclaw has had major problems with a few disruptive parents pushing culture war issues during its school board meetings. The impression from the teachers is that most of the complaining parents don’t even know what CRT is, but they’ve bought the political talking points and are being manipulated. The high school teacher asked, “Why is there more concern over CRT than [the bigger problem of] racism?
The middle school teacher believes the school curriculum requires social-emotional learning as well as an emphasis on content. Becoming more self-aware enables students to better handle their emotions.
The high school teacher told me:
“Kids do a better job than adults. They have learned and are learning to disagree while at the same time being able to show compassion. We all have stories that have been forgotten in the culture wars. There have been some complaints, but not many. The real issue is that all people should be treated with respect. In schools, kids are exposed to different views… and have risen to higher levels [of maturity] now. That gets lost [in the conflict]. Many parents believe the communities they live in are homogeneous, but that is a myth.”
She ended by saying, “I am hopeful for and proud of this generation [of students]. They embrace diversity far better than adults in the community. Kids are looking out for each other by wearing masks out of concern for others who are more vulnerable.”
Perhaps the students are the ones who are solving the culture wars that adults have created. Won’t that be a hopeful perspective for the future!