A Teacher Remembers His Class Before the Age of Facebook

As I enter my 17th year of teaching in Pomona, California, I have learned much about the profession. But, a recent Facebook encounter with former students forced me to reflect deeply about the road ahead for the teaching profession amidst an emerging online world.

Pomona is a working class city on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County and a paradox of the California Dream. It was a city that had reached its apex during the post-World War II period and became a darling of suburban California. Once home to a thriving defense industry, its fall from grace came in the wake of the end of the Cold War, shuttering the city’s main economic engine, General Dynamics. The city’s retail centers began to recede as middle income families slowly left.

But in late 2001, the nation experienced a housing boom. The Inland Empire was its epicenter and sat on Pomona’s eastern border. Residential developers needed labor. Mexican men who sought a piece of the California dream flowed into the region, and brought their families to a new land. Many took up residence in Pomona – near the construction sites that spanned across the Inland Empire and where the rent was cheap.

The school district experienced an enrollment boom too and by 2002, school playgrounds were dotted with temporary classrooms to teach waves of Immigrant students that filled the classrooms.

During that year, I was an 8th Grade US History teacher. My first day with my new students, I was greeted with warm smiles and introduced myself in my starched shirt, dress slacks and bow tie. The year proceeded as warmly as it had started. The class was kind to each other and to their teacher. We soared together as one class, and we laughed and we learned. It was the class that made all of my teaching dreams come true.

By 2014, I was a High School teacher, the memory of that class had faded far into the sea of the thousands of students that I have taught over the years. But, by coincidence, a former student from the class in 2002 and I became Facebook friends. She was a married woman with children now, and had moved out of Pomona years ago. On her wall, she posted an old photo titled: Mr. Hangan’s class 2002-2003.

The Facebook comments from former students reflected positively on the memories we shared together for this brief moment of our lives. A flood of warm thoughts filled my heart, confirming that maybe, in some small way, these students were better people after they left my classroom in 2003.

But the photograph represented something even more: it was a snapshot in time in a pre-digital world. A time when the internet was a smaller part of our lives, cell phones only made calls and Facebook was not part of our national culture.

The memories that we shared as a class grew out of a sense of shared learning. Thirty-five human beings sharing the same space met in real time and bonded around a common experience. But, that world in education is slowly slipping away.

Much of the talk in education reform these days, involves online learning. Colleges and Universities have already caught MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) fever that will undoubtedly spread to K-12 schools. And, I wonder what effect this will have on students in the future.

But the internet has become as valuable as air, for a generation of students who are living their lives in the social network. It is a world that is bringing working class enclaves like Pomona into the global village, unlocking creative possibilities not imaginable a few years ago. My class of 2002 could not tour the world’s museums, research original documents at the click of a mouse, nor, could they virtually visit a college campus on the other side of the country as my students do today.

However, with all the possibilities that online education brings to the classroom, something may be lost. Teachers and students will lose their sense of connectedness that brick and mortar schools bring to the learning process. Most of the research done in education concludes that an effective teacher is the most influential variable to student success in working class schools. Yet, I gather the cultural momentum of online schools will be a greater part of classroom experience in the future.

I, like the rest of the teaching world, will have to adapt to the new realities of online education, as our students will become more attuned to screen time rather than teacher talk. The power of our online world brought a teacher and his former students together years after they shared a magic learning moment – a very human thing to do. But how human will our students grow up to be in the future if computer screens, not people, are doing most of the teaching?