Millions of children and families across the US are deeply entrenched in the seasonal rituals associated with the return to school. From K-4 through college, young people are on the move. In more affluent school districts parents are filling exhaustive lists of expected school supplies and child demands for the right sneakers. Many, many more are worrying that their children will make it to and from school unharmed and that the fragile schedule required to get them there — and still get to work on time — won’t fall apart.
Even as a non-parent, I experience back-to-school as a by-stander and, at times, a witness. As I avoid shopping areas where the most frantic moments of this season unfold, I look inside other cars with mothers and children laughing together, staring blankly into space, or expressing their frustrations with one another. I also read the Facebook posts and look at the pictures of those final August trips before heading back to what is viewed as the normal part of the year. I also see with the street images of youth for whom it appears nothing is happening, no one in these circumstances appears to be getting ready for school at all.
With friends who are children, teens, and young adults themselves, I notice even more. I vicariously notice still more through my friends who are parents and/educators. Here besides the excitement, enthusiasm, frustration, sadness, and fears associated with the retail back-to-school season in which I am bystander, I witness encouragement, pride, nostalgia, resignation, and hope. And as an educator for more than 45 years myself, I have witnessed change in all of these.
The control of school budgets, for example, has been a theme that has waxed and waned over the decades. What has not changed is the wrangling that goes on over school finance; we only seem to notice it when eruptions happen. For decades, people in Wisconsin and elsewhere have seen more and more of University revenues coming from student tuition, a practice that has hurt students, families, and the state overall. The crush for performance at the elementary and secondary levels has led to the privitization of many school services like health, drivers’ safety, arts, and academic remediation. Over the past twenty years, education itself has become privatized with no attendant improvement in academic performance.
Over the past three decades, we have also seen the steady externalization of motivation for learning. Is the material flashy enough, safe enough, reinforced enough? A beloved colleague of mine has often asked aloud if the adults she works with will require more stickers to do well the jobs for which they were hired. She has observed that many of the 30-somethings in her field have grown so accustomed to being praised at every step of a complex task that they either cease working when the reinforcements are not immediate or work in silent resentment because the dispenser of the stickers never shows up. While I am not 100% sure of this phenomenon, it sounds right at some level. The widespread use of reinforcement schedules among elementary school children may be thwarting some part of internalized achievement motivation. In our race for good-enough-for-a-sticker are we cheating ourselves over pride in a job well done?
This summer I once again had the privilege of working with a teen. My large garden requires more time than I choose to devote to it alone, so for the past seven years or so, I have found teens to be my working companions. There has been wide variation among these teens in terms of their gardening skills, work experience, and social awareness. One summer I might be working aside someone keenly aware of international politics and the next another whose greatest interests lie in the arts. However, all of them have shown curiosity and an interest in learning. This year was no exception. My fellow gardener was interested in everything and even applied advanced math to a problem involving stones in a planter.
I am wondering if this curiosity and interest in learning so prominently displayed by young people can be nurtured in the back-to-school season. For example, can the adults attached to young people in any way arrange for more robust where-did-the-time-go conversations? Can we extend those exclamations about the passage of time into discussions about how we have all grown and developed in our time together? I regularly ask young people what they have learned or appreciated and what I have learned or appreciated in my time with them, time ranging from hours to months. Might Uncle Al or Aunt Jacqui talk about their own recent development to foster greater enthusiasm still in the next generation?
Parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends can also open conversations about sex, closeness, and relationships. Even in my university classes I open up discussions about the permanence of relationships, contradicting the common belief that we will not really have each other long, so why bother to devote energy to our connections. I ask my classes to think of us as being in a student-instructor relationship that will evolve into a former student-former instructor relationship over time. How might that translate to their fellow students, their high school friends, neighbors, their cousins, their exes? This fairly straightforward question has led to rich discussions where we get to test our assumptions about independence, achievement, autonomy, competition, social rituals, and love. Imagine how much more fun we’d all have in our families if we had those conversations during the back-to-school season at home as well!
I have also asked young adults I know how I am doing with my life. For example, I recently shared with a couple of them that I held certain aspirations and asked them about their own. Then I asked them to tell me how they thought I was doing in making my aspirations a reality — if my behavior was congruent with reaching my goals. Amid their awkward pauses, they each gave me some excellent insights into how I trip myself up on the way to goal attainment. Currently I am experimenting on not asking how they seem to be doing on achieving their own goals. In one case, the young person just asked me what I thought. The other didn’t. Whether she does or not is not important. I just want her to know she can and hoped to communicate that through modeling.
If back to school meant more than an imperative to shop and comply with educational codes, we might all benefit by learning about ourselves. We might also find the learning in school less of a departure from the learning in summer because we notice we are learning all the time if we elect to do so.