Column: We Can Learn a Lot From Teens — If We’ll Listen

By Louis C. Hochman

Originally published in the Daily Record · May 1, 2010

A light bulb lit up over my head Tuesday — right after someone else did me the favor of flipping the switch.

One of the Daily Record’s more Web-savvy reporters, Meghan Van Dyk (@MeghanVanDykDR to you Twitter folks), realized what should have been obvious to all of us well before thousands of students across New Jersey walked out of their schools in protest of Gov. Chris Christie’s budget cuts — these kids have something to say.

There are plenty of people affected by and injected into the ongoing debate over how to handle school budgets in a fiscal crisis — teachers and their union, taxpayers, school board members, and, of course, the governor. We hear from all of those parties regularly. But we in the news media don’t often hear from the students whose education is in play.

In part, that’s because those students simply aren’t easily found in the places we go — they don’t spend their evenings at school board meetings, and their phone numbers aren’t listed in county directories. Talking to students involves more effort; that means it often doesn’t happen, which is a shame.

So Meghan suggested we engage Morris County’s teens on their own turf: Facebook. We created the Morris County Student Sound-Off group. As I monitored and moderated the group, I got two surprises — one very pleasant, and one less so.

Let’s start with the second: The Daily Record (and I) got a little blowback from people who thought the group would cause trouble. Some online commenters thought we were encouraging students to protest, throwing out any claims to objectivity or impartiality along the way. One parent called me, worried we could violate teens’ privacy with the group.

Of course, that wasn’t our intention. As we try to use new and social media to hold more complete conversations, fine lines are easily blurred. We’re in new territory, and we’re aware we’ve got to tread boldly, but thoughtfully. But I’m glad most respondents seemed to understand what we were trying to do: Open our ears to whatever these frequently underrepresented stakeholders in the budget debate have to say.

And that brings me to the pleasant surprise: The teens who posted to our Facebook group, by and large, offered civil, well-thought out and varied perspectives on the budget crisis. The masses who walked out of schools in Morris County and elsewhere sent one message: Gov. Christie’s budget cuts put students’ futures at risk. That sentiment was shared in our Facebook group as well, but it was part of a dynamic discussion.

Some students said the New Jersey Education Association is unfairly demonizing Christie (“Someone is manipulating the kids in thinking the Gov. is doing a bad job”). Others wondered why administrator pay is so high, or whether it would really be so bad for teachers to sacrifice more (“My dad hasn’t had a raise in two years and my mom hasn’t been able to find a permanent job, so they don’t understand why a pay freeze for school employees is such a big deal”). And some took issue with the protests themselves, saying they should have been done in a way that wouldn’t disrupt the very education the protesters claimed to value (“I’m sad to say a good number of people standing out there today didn’t even know why they were there”).

Contrast that with the debate that’s raged on There, adults and teens alike are also having a valuable discussion about the budget and protests — but it’s often interrupted by people who are hateful or vandalistic, or who get so caught up with emotion they resort to personal attacks. Here’s one of the more timid examples from the last few days: “Do you have OCD that you must keep repreating (sic) yourself? Didn’t I prove last night that you’re not to (sic) bright — what are you doing back?”

So thanks, teens, for showing us that what we hoped to find is true: Sometimes, you’re the ones offering up the most mature and balanced commentary. And when we dismiss or forget what you have to say, it’s our loss.

Louis C. Hochman is the associate digital editor of the Daily Record, and didn’t have any Facey-booky Twitter-tweeting doohickeys when he was a kid. Now get off his lawn