School days aren’t like the old days

August 23, 2022 7:00 am
Ayres Hall at the University of Tennessee - Knoxville (Photo: Getty Images)

Ayres Hall at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville (Photo: Getty Images)

Social media is at its best when parents show photos of their kids going back to school, from the ‘first day of first grade’ shots of fresh-faced little ones dressed in new clothes to the galleries of high school graduates flying the coop to start college. 

I love those pictures, because fall has always felt more like it should be the actual start of a new year than January. 

Though it’s been many a year since I attended college, to say nothing of elementary school, my memories are still vivid. In first grade, my mother bought me a few new dresses at K-Mart, a “Disney on Parade” lunchbox and a black book satchel with red trim to carry my tablets and thick, round pencils in. 

Work to be completed on schools over the summer was rarely finished by the time we came back in September and we had no air conditioning, so the smell of hot tar permeated our classrooms and gave me a lifelong affection for it. 

Heading back to “The Hill” at the University of Tennessee was no less exciting. I worked 50-hour weeks in the summer so getting back to school was something of respite, to say nothing of looking forward to classes and the crush of catching up with friends unseen in months, packed into a campus bar or fraternity house. 

I can’t help but wonder how the years and challenges to education have changed the early educational experience and the post-secondary one. 

The last two years of education discourse have been dominated by rancor — both from parents and lawmakers — over COVID-19 guidelines, how to prepare for the event of a mass shooter at school, nonexistent teaching of critical race theory and whether teachers are, laughably, indoctrinating students with explicit sexual content. 

I have many friends who are teachers, partially because I came of age when being an educator was a highly respected profession. During my school years, if one got in trouble or made a bad grade, parents didn’t complain that their precious darling had been treated unfairly. 

And yes, I already know I sound like a “get off my lawn” elder. 

Rancor over the last couple of years, from parents and lawmakers, has changed the school experience at all levels. And a new law that requires teachers — not only librarians — to inventory the books in their classrooms is absurd government overreach that could stifle opportunities for kids to read.  

Change is inevitable and much of it for the good. I seriously doubt anyone is getting disciplined with a wooden paddle for chewing gum, as was the case when I was growing up. Corporal punishment has no place in schools. 

But not all of it is good and some has been wrought by our own state officials. A new law sponsored by Republican Sen. Jack Johnson of Franklin and House Majority Leader William Lamberth of Sumner County requires not just school librarians but teachers to catalog all the books in their classrooms.

I discussed the law with an old friend, a gem of a human being who taught first grade for years before returning to school on her own dime to get a master’s degree in library science.

“Do you know how many books I always kept in my classroom?” she asked me, rhetorically. “What’s going to happen is that teachers won’t have time to catalog books on top of everything else, so they just won’t have books in the rooms. Can you imagine a classroom with no books in it?” 

The law is absurd overreach and reflects the thoughts of legislators who either have no friends who are teachers or haven’t been in a classroom in years. 

My friend retired at the end of the 2021-2022 school year although she could have kept teaching. When she and I last had an in-depth discussion about school issues, we talked about the incidence of school shootings — and this was months before the God-awful mass shooting in a Uvalde, Texas elementary school. She sounded weary.

“I can’t do it anymore,” she said at the time, telling me of the shooter drills in which she had to shepherd a library full of kids into closets, teaching them to be silent. “The library is like a fishbowl. We’d be a target in a shooting.”

Then, there’s the impact COVID, or COVID policies, has had on educators.

At this point, many of us are aware that early guidance was flawed, and indeed, leaders of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have admitted they might have provided better guidance early in the pandemic. 

Schools, and teachers, and parents and kids fell victim. School administrators grappled with conflicting guidance before a vaccine was developed for kids and many erred on the side of safety. Masks may not have been foolproof, but they didn’t hurt. What should have been simple decisions have led to the loss of some very skilled and empathetic leaders. 

I watched the chair of the Williamson County School Board, a woman from a fine family of teachers, a woman who co-founded a leading volunteer organization, be denigrated, harassed and targeted for simply doing her job and chairing a board meeting at which mask-wearing was approved. 

And that’s to say nothing of how the educational experience has changed for students. Many college freshmen missed the experience I had, taking classes from the isolation of dorm rooms or even home. No socializing, a key part of the college experience and learning how to navigate relationships as an adult. 

And now, those who have returned to campus are being warned about exposure to monkeypox. 

I guess I am getting old, for I’m starting to sound like my parents as I hear myself say: “I’m glad I’m not young now.” I’m sure the school experience is better in some ways than in my days, but I also think kids are missing a lot.

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Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. She has served as political analyst for WZTV Fox 17 and provided communications consulting for political campaigns at all levels, from city council to presidential. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.