The Essential Educator: Learning to Embrace Change

by Diana Drake

High school business and finance teacher Megan DeLena has worked with the Wharton Global Youth Program for more than 10 years, teaching in our summer high school program, serving on our Educator Advisory Board, and using our classroom resources with her own students, both in Pennsylvania and later in South Carolina.

In a fitting blog post for the end of a long and arduous teaching year, Megan offers other teachers her perspective on the power of change as not just a classroom disruptor, but also an opportunity for improvement.

I don’t know about you, but as a teacher, my Facebook feed is full of funny teacher memes. Some offer support or inspiration. Others encourage us to just hang in there, and some make it okay not to be okay. I get it all. I get blogs on how the system is broken; I get blogs that this year is harder than all the others. Even harder than 2020.

But why is that, and is it really?  I have been pondering this lately.

Let me first say that I love to teach personal finance. Of all the business courses I have taught over 22 years, (and there have been a lot!) this is by far my favorite. I know that what I’m teaching will make a difference in my students’ lives every single day, starting today.

For all of that, I never said it was easy.  We can all agree that it is most definitely not easy to teach these days.

My question is this: was it ever easy?

I was recently reading a blog I wrote 10 years ago for high school teachers involved with the global youth program at Wharton titled, “Teaching, and Adapting to, the Millennial Generation.” In it, I discussed how teachers and employers were claiming that kids had changed. They were somehow different these days. I disagreed. The world was changing — technology and social media were emerging forces that had begun to completely rewrite the rules – but the kids were still just kids, same as they’ve always been. So, 10 years ago, I encouraged teachers to change with the times.

My experiences in the decade since have only strengthened my belief in this point of view. I have taught in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and for several summers at the Wharton Global Youth on-campus summer sessions. I have worked with high schoolers from all corners of the world.  Trust me when I say it’s not the kids that are different.

“I choose to laugh more often than not, because losing my mind never helped my classroom management.” – Megan DeLena, High School Business Teacher

Fast forward to 2021. Teachers are pulled and stretched and overworked and overwhelmed. It has been a long semester. I am not here to blame the pandemic (although it has added its share of weight to the problem), and I am not here to blame the fact that teachers are grossly underpaid. These factors are certainly of critical importance, but much has already been written about both. The challenges that I do want to discuss here are deeper, farther-reaching, and will be with us forever.

In the last decade, social media conquered the world. No longer just Facebook, but Instagram, Twitter, Tik Tok, YouTube, LinkedIn, and a million other platforms competing for young people’s attention. It seems like there’s a new one practically every week. The pace of change is astounding, and this is the environment in which Gen Z has grown up.

To me, that’s the key difference.

For 22 years I have had unmotivated students; students who are perfectly satisfied with a barely passing grade; students who already have enough credits to graduate and so can’t be bothered to care anymore; students whose home lives are so turbulent that my class is not even on their radar. I could go on. None of this is new.

What is new, though, is the pace at which change now enters our lives.

It comes marching into our classrooms and never lets up, often like an unannounced observation (a TikTok Challenge to rip apart bathrooms, you say?). We thought 10 years ago that cell phones and fidget spinners would be the death of us. But if the addiction and reliance on phones was bad a decade ago when apps barely existed, today it is an epidemic.

I recently gave a student a hard time in accounting class because he had no idea how many days were in the month of August.  He just looked at me and said, “Why do I need to know that? I’ll just look it up if I need it.” I was dumbstruck.

Megan DeLena

I also remember when I realized students could now text each other during tests from their watches, and that they could buy hoodies with special pockets for their e-cigs so they didn’t have to go to the bathroom. Yes, they can just vape during class. It’s exhausting.

So, what to do?

I am not here with all the answers, but as a business teacher I do know this: if we can frame the problem, we can deal with the problem.

First, don’t take all these distractions and competing platforms personally. It’s not you. Similarly, it’s not going to destroy your student-teacher dynamic to constantly remind students why they are in school. My colleague in the classroom next to me catches more vapes, cell phone violations, and students “sharing answers” than anyone else I know, and she has more students who adore her than almost any other teacher I’ve worked alongside.

Second, hang onto your sense of humor. It’s never been more critical. I will admit that a friend recently asked me how teaching in South Carolina was going and I said, “You know, sometimes they make me laugh and other days it’s all I can do to not lose it right there.” But I choose to laugh more often than not, because losing my mind never helped my classroom management.

Third, remember that the one constant in teaching is that everything will change sooner or later. Sooner seems to be winning right now, but really that’s okay. When a new social media or technology hits and I don’t understand it, I just ask the experts: the students. Let them be part of the solution, or at least help maintain your sanity.

Rather than let it beat us down, we can seize upon change as a series of opportunities to improve ourselves. The ability to be flexible and adaptable is a skill all employers are looking for in their applicants – both in our newly graduated students, but also in us as educators — and business teachers are some of the most flexible and adaptable people I know.

I have a mantra that I write at the end of my journal entry every morning. “Stay Strong, Stay Positive, Stay Kind.”  I take a deep breath, refocus, and get ready for the day.  I don’t know what the day will throw at me, but I will not let it get in the way of doing what I know is critically important to our students and society.

It’s all easier said than done, right? I feel this as much as anyone, and I can’t pretend that I don’t seriously consider leaving this profession a couple of times a year. But then there are days when I know what we do really does matter. Teaching business and personal finance allows me to make a tangible difference in the lives of my students, many of whom have parents who are unbanked or living paycheck to paycheck. We matter. We all matter.

Let’s embrace change as best we can so that we can continue to help our students succeed in this new world. But above all, let’s stay strong, stay positive and stay kind.

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