Careful the things you say… Children will listen.
- Sondheim, Into the Woods
Teachers are generally savvy enough to avoid saying crazy-stupid things, at least in front of students. I’m expecting that anyone reading this blog doesn’t need to be told to steer clear of off-color jokes or denigrating comments about students. Duh.
But even good, experienced teachers often don’t recognize the power of their words when expressing personal opinions.
In one of my early years teaching, a conversation with students touched on which sports we enjoyed. I spoke as I would have with friends, expressing love for a few sports, and particular disdain for another. You who read my blog know that of course I respect the students who dedicate their time to playing that sport; I was merely offering a personal preference, as one does when conversing with friends. Thing is, those students didn’t know me as well as friends or colleagues. In their minds they heard a respected adult say “This sport you love is bad, and I think less of you for devoting your time and energy to it.” (Certainly that’s NOT what I said; that’s the gist of what the students took away, though.) Thus without intending to I became a less respected adult. It took several years and occasional enthusiastic attendance at games for my relationship with players to improve.
I write now to offer particular caution about wading into discussion about “screen time” and cell phone usage. Our faculty has fractured into factions: The usual suspects gleefully posted links to a recent Atlantic article arguing that cell phones are “destroying the teenage generation." Next, we were referred to a scholarly point-by-point takedown of the Atlantic’s evidence and reasoning: “That’s why it’s time for us to stop paying attention to alarmist attacks on kids’ screen time - and instead pay attention to our kids.”
While I have my own opinion on this controversy, one that most readers can easily intuit, I do respect that there are intellectually legitimate arguments on both sides. Nevertheless. I recommend that we all put discussions about the moral merits of technology into the same category of off-color jokes - don’t engage. Why not? The same reason we shouldn’t express disdain for an activity that a student loves, whatever our personal thoughts.
Consider the effect on teenagers who overhear incessant faculty or parental conversations about screen time. They don’t necessarily internalize the logic of the debates; they hear adults, adults who have power over them, denigrating something they love very much. Even if you are taking the side that generally aligns with students’ own views, merely having the discussion in front of them rubs students’ noses in the fact of their impotence.
In your (non-physics) conversations with students, it’s worth considering that, whatever the truth of the matter, students feel as if they are a powerless, disrespected underclass. Tread very carefully. Your relationship with students can so easily be damaged by words which students interpret as contempt for things they love, as disrespecting their autonomy, as you allying yourself with The Man (or, just as often but less idiomatic, The Woman) who is keeping them down.