Why We Need to Expect More

Last June, just after my senior advisees graduated and headed out into their post-Milton lives, my mom died. She had weathered a long illness with more grace than I thought possible. A month later, still fumbling with the loss, I boarded a 50-foot sailboat off the coast of British Columbia to journey deep into the wildness of the Pacific Ocean. 

Out of sight of land and regular communication for weeks, I lived apart from the systems of work and family that typically claimed me. I began to grapple with the central severing I had just experienced—with what it meant to be motherless. 

During that time, I thought a lot about the changing landscape of child-adult relationships —in my own life and in the school context. Of course, some things will likely never change, like how, throughout time, a child’s coming of age depends on them seeing flaws within the adults they had formerly put on a pedestal. And how, throughout time, children and adults enact the push-pull, I-don’t-need-you-but-I-need-you narrative inherent to the process of individuation. 

In my own home, I linger on the text chat with my college-aged children way too long for their liking, desperate for more details of their lives, as my middle schooler screams for more attention from behind her closed door. Within the child-adult relationship, we play out our scripted roles, often tragi-comically, even when we know we have been cast in them.

But what happens when there has been a severing––or at least, a fraying? 

In a number of conversations recently, students have complained about adults not playing the roles we have been cast to play––not being the adults they expect and need. They wonder why we draw fewer lines that help them see and understand limits, shocked by the number of offenses a student must commit before decisive disciplinary action; frustrated with pervasive grade inflation and the unfairness it provokes for the kids who actually complete the work; confused by routine adult absenteeism and lateness and lack of follow-through. Even as I counter with rationalizations and explanations, their call for consistent adult clarity and rigor and presence resounds.

And, truthfully, our child-adult relationships in this post-pandemic world look different to me, too––with a catalog of recent cultural shifts changing how teachers, specifically, relate to students.

How the Dynamic Has Changed

Adult fear, which manifests as institutional fear, has intensified since the recent viral and social pandemics. Missteps in schools, as teachers know too well, have costs, from litigation to job loss. Cancel culture has rendered social exchange between students and teachers perilous. Amidst an adolescent mental health crisis, teachers ceded authority to students’ self-assessments of their emotional well-being, instituted flexible deadlines, and lowered homework expectations. 

Concurrently, a toxic college admission culture—driven by parents’ fear that their investment in secondary school education might not pay off as they had anticipated—has made the school-parent relationship feel more transactional, rendering teachers as service providers rather than experts.

I am speaking broadly, of course, about shifts across secondary school education, and I know that generalizing misses the truth of exceptions. But here we are, shaping child-adult relationships within the context of change. Fear has eroded teachers’ comfort with their own expertise and authority, I believe, metastasizing into something like complacency––and the impact on students is visible. 

A sharp increase in students’ disruptive behavior, particularly in group gatherings and assemblies––side-conversations, texting, restlessness––seems evidence of impact, as well as their routine shortcutting of expectations, from respectful exchanges to school attendance. Students report bargaining with teachers about grades and deadlines and “weaponizing” mental health. A proliferation of academic integrity violations adds to the evidence. Surely, the pandemic’s virtual learning made us all more unaccustomed to the requirements of community and more addicted to the distractions of technology, but something more insidious is afoot, I sense.

Rising to the Challenge

To students, adult authority––manifested in a range of ways––hardly looks compelling, especially when they detect our own discomfort with it. Why would kids need our expertise if Google can offer an answer? Why would they trust our wisdom or our moral compass, if they have spent even a minute witnessing our bullish, polarized democracy? Life experience looks like a liability, while youth culture and its activist appeals looks like progress. Who are we to tell them to sit still, get off their phones, and listen carefully and respectfully? 

This analysis is extreme, maybe dire, but not unfounded. And, the antidote, I suspect, looks more traditional than I might have ever thought to argue. 

Last weekend at dinner, some of our adult friends asked my middle schooler to name her favorite subject. She replied with the name of her favorite teacher who is also the hardest teacher of her hardest subject. My two other daughters, Milton graduates, found their intellectual paths in college because of transformative teachers who communicated to their students that they had vast capabilities. 

Many adults remember the teachers who challenged them and held them accountable long after they forgot subject content and grades. Even amid a proliferation of pedagogical tricks to keep student attention and track student learning, teachers must fight to remember that the most effective relational teaching is perhaps about challenging students to find their potential. What we ought to strive for is less about seeing them, with its tendency to prioritize their vulnerabilities, and more about respecting them enough to saywith kindness, expertise, and authority, “I expect so much of you.”

A Reciprocal Challenge

On the sailboat I boarded after my mom’s death, our middle-aged crew—all of us having lost parents––told stories, and so many of them came back to the adults whose lives shaped ours: one guy whose father, on his deathbed, charged him with keeping the family together; another whose high school art teacher made him believe he should go to architecture school. Many nights on that trip, I dreamed about my mom—always waking to want her close again. We realized that we now sat uneasily atop our generational food chain with no one above us with more life experience to ask advice or pose a question. On late night watches, we asked each other, What is the legacy we will leave?

In my conversations with students this year, while they complained about adults not holding lines, they also knew that they should expect more of themselves. Of course, their own adulting will soon shape another generation’s maturing, their own authority something to wrestle with. And so, as we adults work harder, as we must, to expect more of ourselves as we challenge our students, we must also charge them to access more from us—to humble themselves, to ask questions, and to pay attention, especially when they aren’t interested. Among the lessons and advice they will get from us, the varied stories they might hear will burrow inside them and open pathways for their lives that they didn’t know existed.

Lisa Baker

Lisa Baker is an English teacher at Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts.