How Utah’s kids have changed in the past 50 years, says a retired kindergarten teacher

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

The retired teacher first stood in front of a kindergarten class in 1971. She saw students become parents and remembers almost every child she taught.

Their photos filled a photo album in her classroom on June 3, where parents, administrators and students celebrated her last day at Dilworth Elementary School. It was there that she started working 32 years after beginning her career at the now closed Rosslyn Heights Elementary School.

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

Children “grow up faster”

In many ways, Utah kids haven’t changed much in the past half-century. They are always sweet, brimming with curiosity.

And they’re always brutally honest and hilariously honest. She recalled a kindergartener approaching her one morning and saying, “Well, you look better than yesterday.”

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

Bitner remarked that kids these days “grow up faster.” They are more used to being away from home. Fewer children cry on the first day of school — and fewer parents cry, too, she says.

Its students are more sophisticated, more aware of what is 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, Friday, June 3, 2022.

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

Still, Bitner taught many of his students how to hold a pencil. More than ever, she spent time helping children practice their manners – staying quiet in the hallways and saying “please” and “thank you”.

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

“There’s such incredible energy in his class,” Chawtin said. “She makes you want to learn. … Every kid thinks he’s Mrs. Bitner’s favorite.

The impact of technology on children

Perhaps the toughest school year of Bitner’s teaching career was her last. This is when students returned to in-person instruction after a period of online learning triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

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

Kids these days like things to be “fast and they want things to be loud,” Bitner said. That’s why, along with their familiarity with smart devices, she and her fellow teachers embraced more hands-on teaching activities. Students often request background music in class. Coloring is a thing of the past.

More students are now exhibiting behavioral issues, 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 following the past three chaotic years.

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

“I think they missed some of those things,” Bitner continued. “And, absolutely, it took the whole year for the kids to calm down and be able to start again.”

Significant and stressful expectations

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

The kindergarten curriculum is much more rigorous than it used to be. There is more emphasis on teaching math and language arts, especially reading.

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

At a change meeting, a teacher raised her hand and asked, “Could you just tell us what you’re removing to make room for this?” Because it’s really, really hard,” recalls Bitner.

“Kindergarten isn’t just about sitting down, being quiet and reading,” Bitner told the Salt Lake Tribune. “…We still have to think: he’s a 5-year-old child. … If a child does not learn to share at age 5, when does he learn? And these are important things.

A parent asked Bitner why she didn’t spend more time teaching science, and Bitner told her she wished she could. But the program does not highlight it. The amount of testing that kindergarten students undergo is also “ridiculous,” Bitner said.

Kindergarten is still optional in the state of Utah, but this year’s legislature required school districts across the state to offer a daytime option. Districts have three years to implement the option.

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

Bitner was also frustrated with the controversial HB234 proposal, which was dropped but would have required teachers to post lesson plans 30 days in advance. Things rarely go as planned in a kindergarten classroom, Bitner said. She wondered: how could teachers explain that a child vomits or brings an incredible object to class to show and tell?

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

Another added stress: In the past, students who didn’t speak English as their first language worked with a teacher who focused entirely on second language students. Now these students are in traditional classes, a challenge for both students and teachers.

However, as teacher expectations have increased, so have the number of gifts and supplies given by parents, Bitner said.

“I’ve never had kids come in and say, ‘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, more outspoken

There are fewer shy students now, Bitner noted, and kids seem more comfortable speaking their minds. She recently asked students to stand up in the middle of class and ask to do something else because they weren’t having fun.

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

Parents are also more comfortable voicing their concerns at parent-teacher meetings. Previously, the main concern of parents was whether or not their child was being respectful in class. Parents now often ask teachers about their teaching practices.

A parent pointed out to a teacher that Bitner shared a bathroom with a dirty toilet. The teacher told the parent that a caretaker would come and clean it up, 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 the kids are the same as always.

“She was like, ‘Why the first exchange you want to have with me is to tell me something’s wrong?'” Bitner said.

Even though the world has changed, the joyful experiences Bitner shared with her students fueled her with the same energy and enthusiasm that she had in 1971.

Bitner intends to continue teaching as a substitute at Dilworth from the fall. She loves being around the kids too much to give it up altogether, she said.

“I’ll be at the grocery store, I’ll paint on my face, and someone will say, ‘Oh, well, what are you teaching?’ And I’ll say, ‘The kids,'” Bitner said. “And that’s the thing we need to remember the most – it’s my job to find a way to teach this group of kids.”

As Bitner roamed the playground after the last bell of the year rang, parents and students approached her, asking for a hug.

A young girl hugged her tight, looked up, and said, “I don’t want you to ever leave.”

Editor’s note • This story is only available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Please support local journalism.

Comments are closed.