Beyond Today host Darris McNeely sits down with Ben Light, who spent 15 years as an educator in Oregon's public school system. In Part 1 they discuss how technology is affecting young people and what adults can do to help children succeed.
[Darris McNeely] Welcome to our Beyond Today Studios. We're beginning a new series on "Beyond Today" of relevant conversations and interviews on issues that are impacting all of us every day and seeking to give to you help for today and hope for tomorrow, which is really the purpose of "Beyond Today." Ben Light, an educator, 15 years in the Oregon Public School System. How did you get into working with young people?
[Ben Light] Well, you know, a lot of educators have stories that go back, "When my mom was an educator, my dad was an educator." For me, that wasn't the case. I went through and did a degree in science. It was my passion, and I loved it, but I couldn't see myself working behind a microscope for the rest of my life. And so, I started looking at options, I started looking at things that I could do. And I got a job working in a special ed classroom for the Salem Public School District. And it was so wonderful. It's just such a wonderful opportunity. And I learned a lot and I thought, you know, I can share what I love and share my passions with the youth going into teaching. So, I went got my masters, and the rest was history.
[Darris] And there you spent 15 years doing that.
[Ben] Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I taught at the high school level, I taught at the middle school level for, yeah.
[Darris] And you just recently transitioned into pastoral ministry where you're still working with youth as a camp director.
[Ben] Correct, yeah.
[Darris] So, you and I share really a lot of that. I'm just removed from you by a few years, and maybe a generation in that. But I teach, and I have worked with the youth in a camp setting and in a ministry setting as well. It takes me back to a story that I've heard many years ago. It's a bit trite and overused, but it never gets old. And it's what's called the "Starfish Story." I've brought my trusty starfish in here today because I recently bought this on a trip to remind me of a lot of young people that I've worked with and wanted to make a difference with.
Basically, the starfish story, as we know it, there was a man was walking on a beach early one morning, and ahead of him, he saw a young person running back and forth throwing starfish in back into the ocean. And he stopped and he said, "What are you doing?" And he said, "Well, I'm throwing starfish back in. The tide is going to go out, the sun's going to come up, and they'll die if they remain here on the beach." The man looked around and he saw there were, you know, dozens, if not hundreds, of starfish there. And he said, "Well, you can't possibly save all of these. Why are you doing this?" And so the young person reached down, grabbed another starfish, and threw it back into the ocean. And he said, "Well, I made a difference with that one that didn't die."
And it's a remarkable story, because that's really what we want to do when we are working with young people. We're willing pass on the knowledge of our generation, wherever that might be, to the younger ones and make a difference in somebody's lives, especially in the world today, where we see the pace of change and so many things taking place that are impacting our young people. If I were to ask you, what was the biggest thing that you saw just in 15 years of working with young people in the public school setting that was the biggest aspect of change? What would it be?
[Ben] I think you mentioned it, I think just the rate of change. The speed of changes is happening faster than I think we have the capability at times to keep up with it. And so, we have a lot of things that have occurred. You know, technology in the classroom, for example, was one of the issues that we dealt with, you know. When I first started teaching, no one had cell phones. In my last year of teaching, everyone had cell phones. And so, you have this situation where, you know, the speed with which technology is coming on is, in a way, outpacing our human ability to even deal with it or have control and regulate ourselves with it. And so, you have young people who at times...you know, if you've got a teacher up there talking and you've got a teacher up there teaching, whatever they're teaching, you know, Facebook and Instagram and social media is way more fun.
[Darris] So, with the cell phones that are so prevalent, we all have our smartphones.
[Darris] What are some of the challenges, what are some of the dangers to a sixth grader that with that in their hand that a parent should be aware of?
[Ben] Well, I think parents need to realize that, you know, with connectivity comes access to anything and everything. And if there's not appropriate filtration or appropriate, you know, control measures in place, kids can access whatever is out there on the internet. And I think we all recognize there's some pretty awful stuff out there that kids have at the push of a button.
You know, one of the issues that we've dealt with in the school systems, especially in recent years over the last, you know, three to five years has been the prevalence of sexting, where, you know, young ladies, in particular, are pressured into taking inappropriate photographs of themselves and sending them to people. And, you know, I think there's a thought that, "Oh, well," you know. Especially with things like Snapchat, it's going to be gone in no time, so what's the big deal? Except those can be screenshot, and be saved saved, and they make their way around. We had a situation at the school I taught at where that happened, where it was taken in a thought that it would never be seen by anybody but the person that it was sent to. And before long, the entire school had it.
[Darris] And it was permanent.
[Ben] And it's permanent, absolutely. At that point, it's permanent.
[Darris] What do you think would be the motive for young girls to do something like that? Is it a trend?
[Ben] Yeah, I think it's the same as anything, a desire to fit in. I think there's a degree of peer pressure that occurs at that age range. Middle School especially, there's a want to fit in, and a want to be a part of the group and, you know, somebody says, "Well, I'll do this," and you don't want to be the one that, you know, that is contradictory to that.
[Darris] So, what's the best way for a teacher, a parent to deal with the access that young person does have with that smartphone or computer...
[Ben] Sure. Sure.
[Darris] ...in a classroom or in a home?
[Ben] I think it's really important that parents recognize the importance of having very open conversations with their kids. I think if we deal as parents...You know, I have young children myself. My oldest is going to be a seventh-grader this year. And there's certain conversations that just have to be happening about some of these things, you know, the internet pornography discussions, you know, those sorts of issues that come up. Those kind of conversations have to happen, because if they don't, the kids are going to ask. And they're going to talk to people about it, and you as a parent, you want to be the one that is a part of that narrative as opposed to relinquishing control of that narrative and having the school system or the kids in that school kind of teach your kids what's okay and what's not, because their definition of what's okay is certainly not biblical.
[Darris] Reality of the situation is that a young person with their parents are basically in the same boat with them.
[Ben] Oh, yeah.
[Darris] They've got their smartphones texting back and forth.
[Ben] Oh, for sure.
[Darris] How do you recognize enough is enough?
[Ben] Yeah, as a parent?
[Darris] As a parent.
[Ben] I think, you know, when you realize, when you see that it's impacting their life in a variety of ways. When you see that you're having conversations with the kid and the kids, "Boop, boop, boop, boop," on the phone, and not listening or, not paying attention during that process, it's time to nip that in the bud and make sure that...
[Darris] I'm tempted to ask you exactly how we might do that as adults.
[Ben] As adults, exactly.
[Darris] But we'll try to keep this focused toward the end.
[Ben] Well. And the reality is, you bring up a great point. I mean, our technology has gone so quickly that even as adults, we're having a difficulty regulating our usage of that technology. Imagine how hard it is for a kid. Somebody who's 11 or 12, and now, you know, has grown up having a tablet in their hand, or grown up having access to those sorts of things for life. It just becomes part of what forms you.
[Darris] So, if you were teaching for 15 years, you've been out of that environment for a couple of years.
[Ben] Yeah, couple of years.
[Darris] That would have put you basically pre-smartphone mania. And then, by the time you got out of it, it was very prevalent. What impact did you see upon...what changes did it make upon the youth that were before you in a classroom within that 15-year period?
[Ben] I think the number one I noticed was attention span. It used to be that you are able to keep kids' attention for a little bit longer. When we became a culture of snippets and sound bites and Twitter or, you know, tweets and things like that, it became more difficult to hold that attention for an extended period of time. Everything needed to be in these little quick cognizant bites.
[Darris] And is that how you adapted?
[Ben] Oh, absolutely.
[Darris] Just short burst of the information getting.
[Ben] I actually had a...I had set my classroom up, we had a 50-minute period. And so, I set it up with the 5 to 10-minute windows. And so, I would have a little five-minute this and then a quick transition, and then 10-minutes this and a quick transition. And I could borrow, like, if I had a lecture that needed to be done that would take 20 minutes, I could. But I was very cognizant that the picture had to change every so many minutes, or you lose them. You just completely lose them. And that wasn't the case at the beginning. At the beginning, you could go longer. I mean, it wasn't much longer, but you could go longer.
[Darris] Well, you're helping me probably improve my teaching tool as I look at the same situation as I'm working with young adults in a classroom situation as well but we probably all been jaded by that short attention span.
[Ben] I think so. When you look at the news, you know, the news is quick sound bites.
[Darris] It's geared, it's designed that way as well. Did that have any other problem impact in your effort to work with young people on what you saw coming out of kids in the classroom?
[Ben] I don't know that I could blame this directly on technology and cellular phone usage and things but the apathy of kids changed. Like, there was a degree of apathy that started to set in as time went on. And it could be as a result of just, you know, constant news feed of bad news.
[Darris] Apathy toward you as an instructor?
[Ben] Apathy towards life in general.
[Darris] Life in general.
[Ben] Just kind of, "Mm, there's not really a future, there's not really anything to look forward to, so why does it matter? Why do I care? The same terrible world is going to be the end result whether I get an education or not, and who cares?"
[Darris] What exactly is the view that you see that young people have of the world that they're facing, that they're reentering with all of the matters that is in front of them? Is that a dark world? Is it a positive world? How are they seeing the world that is generally being presented to them?
[Ben] Well, I think they see it in how it's being presented. And I know it's kind of an avoidance of the question, but when we, I mean, think about what we've seen, just what does the news present to us? What does the media present to us? You know, we see violence, we see issues, we see political unrest, we see all these other things. And so, I think as kids, the world around us, to an extent as they look at that world, is kind of dark. And I think that they see in some ways, you know, you hear about the growing mountain of college debt, and, you know, people coming out $100,000 in debt with a degree that doesn't find them a job or doesn't get them a job. And there's a degree of, for lack of a better description, hopelessness. And that kind of is in the heart of some of these kids, especially as they're coming into... I mean, you have that idealistic high school student, you know, an idealistic high school senior, "I'm gonna go out there and I'm gonna change the world. I'm going to make a difference. I'm going to go out there and do all these things." And then they start to get into that cog of society as it chunks and as they begin to go through college and realize that this is harder than I thought it would be to make it.
[Darris] College is harder and it's expensive. And as you say, they can exit that with a mountain of debt throught student loans, and not a guarantee of a job is going to really help to pay that down. So, that can be a fearful thing. The future, what's does it hold creates anxiety.
[Ben] Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.
[Darris] Do you think fear is part of that as well?
[Ben] I think, to an extent, yeah. I think that there's fear. I think the biggest thing that I'm noticing with youth today is just a degree of uncertainty and confusion with what society is going to be and what it is. You know, over the last three to five years, in particular, has been over the last three to five years, really have begun to dismantle what we used to know to be true. You know, we begin to question gender, we begin to question, you know, what a family is, what marriages. We start down this road of questioning enough of those things, and pretty soon, you have a generation of kids that are growing up, saying, "Well, which way is up? Like, I don't even know anymore." Because for the longest time, we've known this to be true, and now it's not.
[Darris] We dip our toes into this issue of gender here.
[Darris] What have you seen with the LGBTQ movement and transgender sexuality? From your experience working with young people, how's that impacted them?
[Ben] I think that the prevalence has increased significantly. When I first started teaching, there were maybe 1 or 2 kids in a school of 700 that were dealing with either questioning their sexuality, or whatever it might be. By the end of the middle school that I was at, they were up to 10 or 15 in a school of 600. Recently, just this last year, there's a young man in my child's elementary school that is in the process of transitioning at the third grade. And so, the prevalence...
[Darris] To a female?
[Darris] Third grade.
[Darris] In a third grade?
[Ben] Third-grade classroom.
[Darris] In your son's classroom?
[Darris] So, how's that impacted your son?
[Ben] Lots of questions.
[Darris] How have you handled it?
[Ben] Well, we just, we talked about it. You know, we talked about how, you know, there is a legitimate issue of gender dysphoria. You know, there's a legitimate issue of that. It's a condition in which somebody believes themselves to be different than what they really truly are. But that doesn't change reality, that doesn't change biology, that doesn't change...
[Ben] DNA. Exactly. And so, you have that conversation and just say, "Hey, look. You know, this person's confused, they need help. Unfortunately, the help they're getting is not the help that they really need, but..."
[Darris] And if that help that they really do need would be available, it would be considered almost illegal today.
[Ben] It would be. Correct. And, you know, in the college, there's another person that I know that their daughter was struggling with some of these things. And the college that she was at, the medical staff said, "We'll just put you on hormone therapy. I mean, let's just go down that road, and we'll just start heading down that way." Rather than stop and say, "Hey, wait a second. Let's talk about this. Let's discuss this. Let's do some counseling. Let's kind of figure out where things are at." It was just, "Nope, let's go straight to the hormone therapy. Let's work to get you transition and get you moving in the direction you should be 'going.'"
[Darris] So, how do you find the situation impacting your own son and his classmates?
[Ben] Thankfully, he's pretty, he understand some of these things fairly well, which is...
[Darris] And you're engaged with him as a parent.
[Ben] Absolutely, yes.
[Darris] You're actively engaged, and you're aware of what's taking place...
[Darris] ...and know how to deal with that. So, what would you say to a parent who maybe oblivious, and or they suddenly find out that their, you know, their third or fourth grader's having to deal with this, somebody sitting next to them in the classroom is questioning their gender? How do you help that person deal with it in the same way that you have?
[Ben] I would just say they just have to have those conversations. You know, and the thing of it is, I think we used to think that those conversations didn't have to happen until 15, 16. They need to be happening at seven and eight, now, unfortunately. You know, it needs to be happening much earlier and, I mean, in different ways, obviously. You don't have to get into the nitty-gritty of it, but understanding that there is some confusion in this way, and there are some issues that these individuals have. It doesn't change how we interact with them. I think that's the big important thing. You know, I think we can still be kind, and we can still be loving, and all of those things. But we have to recognize that the individual's confused, and they're struggling, and they need help. They really do need help.
[Darris] I find this to be shocking just from the reality of it, because I'm a grandparent, I have grandchildren in that category, and I'm sure that they are facing that. We have not had that conversation when they visit with us, but their parents need to be aware of that as well.
[Darris] So awareness, obviously, and a reality check for everyone that's watching this and trying to get a handle on it is imperative.
[Ben] The other aspect of this is, too, whether you're public school or whether you're homeschooled. You know, we have a large population of homeschool in the United States.
[Ben] Whether you're public or homeschooled, I think it's important to recognize you are gonna run into these things, whether you're in a public school setting or whether not in school.
[Darris] No one's immune.
[Ben] No one's immune, no one's immune. You're going to run into it. You know, we just had Pride Month this last month. You're gonna run to it everywhere, and you just need to be aware. You need to have those conversations with your kids.
[Darris] Doing any type of work with young people. If you know the why of what you are, what you're doing, and that's inside your heart, then that will fuel you to have that passion, and I think get through the tough times, the rejection, the problems of technology, and all the other quirks that are there as barriers to what we're wanting to accomplish, and that's ultimately to reach the heart of a young person.
[Ben] Absolutely. And keeping in mind, you know, for parents and educators, those teenage years were tough, those were tough years. You know, kids are questioning everything. They're questioning what they were brought up with, they're questioning where they fit in society. And as they answer those questions, you know, to a certain extent, it's like their life is this plate, and they've broken that plate to, an extent. They've broken it apart, and they've said, "Is this still me? Is this still me? Is this still me?" And they're piecing all of that together. And unfortunately, I think as parents, what that looks like sometimes is them questioning long-held truths, that's questioning a number of things. But that does not mean that that is going to be the end result. And so, we see this little season of teenage years, you know. We see this time frame where things start to come apart and the questions start to be asked. And recognizing that provided as parents were engaged with that process, and we're there and we're talking, the end result is going to be much better than if we just say, "Well, this is a season in life, they'll be over it eventually."
[Darris] We're running out of time for this particular episode here, but when we deal with this on our next program with you, I think we want to pick that up. And then talk about some of the other challenges of drugs and suicide, and see if there's a connection there with what is being foisted upon our young people today, and really all of us as adults to be able to accept that but to look at the long-term impact of that and the headlines that we are dealing with today.
[Darris] So, we'll deal with that as we pick this up in the next segment of this "Beyond Today" interviews. And all of you that are watching, be sure and look for that. Thanks for tuning in to "Beyond Today" interviews.