How Utah children have changed in the past 50 years, according to a retiring kindergarten teacher

“Every day is a new adventure,” Louise Bitner said of her more than half-century teaching career.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Louise Bitner get hugs from her student, Emma Croft, on her last day as a teacher at Dilworth Elementary School, on Friday, June 3, 2022. Bitner is retiring after 51 years as a kindergarten and first grade teacher.

After 51 years of teaching children in Salt Lake City schools, Louise Bitner has seen some “big changes” in the ways kids learn and behave.

The retiring teacher first stood in front of a kindergarten class in 1971. She’s seen students become parents, and remembers nearly every child she’s taught.

Their pictures filled a photo album in her classroom June 3, where parents, administrators and students celebrated her last day at Dilworth Elementary School. It’s where she began working 32 years after starting her career at now-closed Rosslyn Heights Elementary.

“Kids are kids, and they’re delightful and fun,” Bitner said. “And they push until they find the limits.”

Children are ‘growing up faster’

In many ways, Utah children haven’t changed much over the past half-century. They are still sweet-natured, brimming with curiosity.

And they are still brutally, hilariously honest. She recalled a kindergartener approaching her one morning who said, “Well, you sure look better than you did yesterday.”

“Every day is a new adventure,” Bitner said with a laugh.

Bitner has noticed that kids these days are “growing up faster,” though. They’re more used to being separated from home. Fewer kids cry on the first day of school — and fewer parents cry too, she said.

Her students are more sophisticated, more aware of what’s going on in the world and more accustomed to hands-on activities.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Emma Croft gets a hug from her kindergarten teacher, Louise Bitner, on the last day of school at Dilworth Elementary, on Friday, June 3, 2022.

“They’re doers. They’re used to fast devices. We have kids with ‘wiggy’ thumbs,” Bitner said, gesturing her thumb in front of her as if she were tapping the screen of a smartphone.

Still, Bitner taught many of her students how to hold a pencil. More than ever, she has spent time helping children practice their manners — being quiet in the halls, and saying “please” and “thank you.”

Summer Chatwin, who was in Bitner’s kindergarten class in 1983, said that Bitner had a special talent for making kids who were nervous about coming to school feel comfortable, setting the tone for the rest of their educational experience.

“There’s just such an amazing energy in her class,” Chawtin said. “She makes you excited to learn. … Every kid thinks that they’re Ms. Bitner’s favorite.”

The impacts of technology on children

Perhaps the most difficult school year of Bitner’s teaching career was her last one. It’s when students moved to back to in-person instruction after a period of online learning triggered by the the COVID-19 pandemic.

Engaging learners at any age in an online format “is much harder” than in a classroom, she said. And in the aftermath of online learning, it’s been harder to get kids to quietly sit still.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bitner holds a photo her dad took of her when she was a kindergarten student in Oregon.

Nowadays, children like everything to be “fast-moving, and they want things loud,” Bitner said. That, and their familiarity with smart devices, is why she and fellow teachers have embraced more hands-on instructional activities. Students often ask for background music in class. Coloring is a thing of the past.

More students display behavioral issues now, Bitner said, and since the pandemic began, more students are showing up late to class, or missing school altogether. She thinks every school should have a full-time counselor to support teachers — especially in the wake of the chaotic past three years.

“Kids need time to be kids,” she said, and in-person learning allows them to better socialize and build self-esteem.

“I do think they’ve missed out on some of those things,” Bitner continued. “And, absolutely, it has taken all year to get kids to calm down and to be able to do that again.”

Great — and stressful — expectations

Of all the changes Bitner has noticed, the one that stands out most is the level of expectations now being placed on teachers and students — from both parents and legislators.

Kindergarten curriculum is much more rigorous than it once was. There’s a greater emphasis on teaching math and language arts — especially reading.

The Salt Lake City School District this year required all kindergarten through third grade teachers to take a weekly, two-hour online course focused on teaching students to read, Bitner said.

In one meeting about the change, a teacher raised her hand and asked, “Could you just tell us what you’re taking away to make space for that? Because that is really, really difficult,” Bitner recalled.

“Kindergarten is not just sit down, shut up and read,” Bitner told The Salt Lake Tribune. “… We still need to think: This is a 5-year-old. … If a child doesn’t learn to share when they’re 5, when do they learn? And those are important things.”

One parent asked Bitner why she doesn’t spend more time teaching science, and Bitner told her she wished she could. But the curriculum doesn’t emphasize it. The amount of testing kindergarten students undergo is also “ridiculous,” Bitner said.

Kindergarten is still optional in the state of Utah, but the Legislature this year did require that school districts across the state offer a full-day option. Districts have three years to put the option in place.

It’s easier to get through lesson plans in a full-day kindergarten class, Bitner said. But being at school all day is stressful for students and teachers alike.

Bitner also was frustrated at the proposal of controversial HB234, which was dropped but would have required teachers to post lesson plans 30 days in advance. Things rarely go according to plan in a kindergarten class, Bitner said. She wondered: How could teachers account for a child throwing up, or bringing an incredible show-and-tell item to class?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Zaiden Castleberry gets directions from Bitner on the last day of school.

Another added stress: In the past, students who don’t speak English as their first language have worked with a teacher focused entirely on second-language students. Now, those students are attending traditional classes, a challenge for the students and teachers alike.

As teacher expectations have increased, though, so too have the number of gifts and donated supplies from parents, Bitner said.

“I have never had children walk in and say to me, ‘Here’s a gift card. My mom says she’s glad you’re here today,’” Bitner said, recalling recent moments of kindness.

Students seem more confident, outspoken

There are fewer shy students now, Bitner has noticed, and children seem more comfortable about speaking their minds. She’s had students stand up in the middle of class recently and demand to do something else because they weren’t having fun.

School is a fun and safe place, she has assured the students. But it’s also hard work.

Parents also are more comfortable voicing their concerns in parent-teacher conferences. The primary concern of parents used to be whether or not their child was being respectful in class. Now, parents often interrogate teachers about their teaching practices.

One parent pointed out to a teacher that Bitner shared a bathroom that had a dirty toilet. The teacher told the parent that a custodian would come clean it, but that was not her responsibility.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bitner says she spends more time teaching manners now, but in many ways kids are the same as always.

“She thought to herself, ‘Why is it that the first interchange you want to have with me is to tell me something that’s wrong?’” Bitner said.

Even as the world has changed, the joyous experiences Bitner has shared with her students have fueled her with the same energy and enthusiasm she had in 1971.

Bitner intends to continue teaching as a substitute at Dilworth beginning in the fall. She enjoys being around children too much to give it up entirely, she said.

“I’ll be in the grocery store, paint on my face, and someone will say, ‘Oh, well, what is it you teach?’ And I’ll say, ‘Children,’” Bitner said. “And that’s the thing that we have to remember the most — is it’s my job to figure out a way to teach that group of children.”

As Bitner roamed the playground after the last bell of the year had rung, parents and students came up to her, asking for a hug.

One young girl squeezed her tight, looked up and said, “I want you to never leave.”

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