If we want a better deal for the teenagers of today and a better future for the world they will inherit tomorrow, there is no doubt that our schools need to change in fundamental and far-reaching ways. Too many of our students are turning away from schools physically, or tuning out of them emotionally and intellectually. When young teenagers yearn for greater independence, we tighten the screws of classroom control. When they are most in need of care and support to guide them through the turbulent years leading to adulthood, we focus on teaching subject matter, put away care with other childish things, and leave students’ emotional needs to the peer group and the gang. Early adolescents need independence but we show them indifference. They need kindness but we crush them with control. They are brimming with criticism and curiosity, but we bludgeon them with content and its coverage.
In the days when many young people left school early, there were jobs for them to go to, and we expected little of students who were female, black or poor, these disparities were not so obvious or so great. But more students stay in school now, there are few other options open to them, and our expectations for all students are rightly higher. School matters more, to more students, more of the time. The pressure in schools is mounting, and there are no safety valves to release it. Today, if young people are sold short on their schooling, if it fails to engage them or frustrates the fulfillment of their needs, teachers are the first to know. Violence, disrespect for authority and the relentless grind of students’ reluctance to comply with anything but the barest minimum of academic requirements, remind teachers daily of their students’ resistance to what they have to offer.
The secondary schools or junior high schools of today face significant new challenges. These are not just vague, abstract, futuristic needs of a new century. Change is already occurring inside teachers’ classrooms because change is everywhere outside them. Schools and teachers are caught up in a worldwide transformation of politics, economics, technology, culture, morality and everyday life. Family structures are changing, relationships are becoming more temporary and fragile, and children’s selves and identities are more at risk. Teachers speak of there being many more social-work responsibilities in teaching today