American Attitudes


One day last year, I gave all of my tutorial students a grade of 100% for having marvelous attitudes. I had never graded for attitude before, but in this case I was pleased to do so. Here’s how it came about: I began the class by telling my students that I was giving them a pop-essay quiz to help prepare them for the essay section of the ACT. I explained why I felt this time of practice was important and proceeded to inform them as to the subject and form the essays were to take and how much time they had to complete them. I had fully expected frowns, sighs, even a groan or two. Instead, they were every one of them smiling at me with anticipation. “This is exciting!” one girl exclaimed. “Yeah, this’ll be fun!” another one agreed.

No, I promise, this really happened. I was not dreaming and I am not making this up.

Since that time, I’ve had the privilege of taking on several more tutorial classes, and I’ve run into the same positive attitudes time and time again. Last week I asked my Middle School Language Arts Class if they would like to diagram sentences on the board and had to jump back to avoid the stampede towards the front of the classroom. When I give them their reading assignments, they cry, “yay!” and can’t wait to get started. I can hardly get through all the material I prepare for my Literature classes because the kids don’t want to stop discussing their latest reading assignments. One of my College Prep Writing students greets me almost every week with an enthusiastic: “I love this class!”

When I was in school, it was considered the height of “uncool” to be enthusiastic about anything, least of all schoolwork. From what my kids tell me, this attitude has not changed much over the years. Learning is a chore, a drudgery, something to avoid if at all possible. Kids complain about their assignments, get them done late, try to get away with doing as little work as they can.

So have I somehow found the only kids in America who enjoy learning? I must be the luckiest teacher in the country! Actually, all of my students are talented, intelligent, and special. But any student can be a good student if he or she wants to be. It’s all in the attitude.

I don’t know where this American disdain for education started. Perhaps it’s the fault of the media, portraying kids as perpetually lazy, whiny, and ill-mannered and labelling this behavior as “cool”. Are the movie and television industries simply reflecting American reality, or are the kids of America watching the media and buying into the message?

Perhaps it started with the kids themselves, bullying those who excel in the classroom to cover for their own inadequacies. I do know that I was persecuted by my peers in school because I enjoyed my classes, made good grades and always completed my assignments on time. I was not a particularly brilliant student, but I did well because I worked hard; as a consequence, I was disliked by almost everyone. It is my understanding that this situation has not changed at all over the years in both public and private schools; if anything, it may have become much worse.

Could it be the fault of the educators? I’m not sure. I know that I had some terrific teachers in high school who were caring, innovative, and encouraging. They made learning exciting for me, but most of my fellow students would have disagreed with me. No matter what the teacher did to try to engage the class, only a few of us responded positively.

My opinion is that it’s the parents that make the difference. The parents of my own students are excited about learning. They not only teach their own children, they continue educating themselves. They discuss what they’ve been learning with their children and with other adults in the hearing of their children, modelling the kind of attitudes that I appreciate so much in the classroom. We should never stop the education process. Americans in particular have no excuse for not taking the time to learn something new everyday. We have access to the knowledge of the world from throughout all ages of history; but do take advantage of that? Or do we waste our time and resources on pointless games and videos of cats? Do we read the great literary offerings of the masters, or do we content ourselves with equivalent of literary junk-food? Do we go to museums and concerts with enthusiasm? What are we teaching our kids when we don’t take the time to improve our minds? Yes, it can be hard after a long days’ work to sit down and read a good book or watch an informative documentary. But our kids have had a long, hard day, too–and we still expect them to finish their homework, while we relax and watch mindless trivia.

Our attitudes as parents are contagious. If we value education for ourselves, our children will value it as well. If we get excited about learning new things, they will view learning as exciting. And enthusiastic students sure make my job a lot more exciting!

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