I Spent Two Months Teaching High School and All Our Teenagers are Broken: Part 2

This is a continuation of my last post where I presented the concept that our teenagers are overwhelmed with informational inputs and don’t really know what to do with any of it. Read that post before this one for more context…

sally in school

I had no intention of using this pic on the internet when I took it. You can probably tell.

Students seem almost….resigned. Which is awfully depressing for teenagers.

One of the things I absolutely love about teenagers is their resemblance to overgrown puppies. Sure, they wrap their exuberance in feigned apathy and monosyllabic grunts, but underneath all that angst they are soft and squishy and want a hug. I love them. They are trying on the face of ennui and sophistication, but they really also want some candy and maybe a nap. How adorable is that? If you understand the two sides of that coin, it’s really not that hard to get them fired up about almost any topic.

But the students I was spending time with seemed almost paralyzed with indecision and a general sense of resignation. Teenagers haven’t ever been particularly excited about completing their homework, but they also haven’t appeared so scattered or beaten down by it, either. I expected students to say things like, “when am I ever going to need this” and “is this for a grade.” What I didn’t expect was absolutely no other expectation on THEIR parts that there might be meaning to the madness. No one even bothered to ask why they were learning about ancient Greece or early Chinese dynasties. They just took the metaphorical beatings and panicked about when the next thing was due.

It’s as though they see school as one giant unknowable, ever-changing checklist that must be endured as though drudgery in the salt mines until such a magical time as “college” when somehow something, anything, will be different.

Rats on a Treadmill

During my planning period, I had the enlightening experience of sharing the classroom with a college English class. A teacher from a nearby school came in to teach advanced seniors three days a week. For a few of the weeks I was there, the subject matter was the writing of personal narratives and I could not have been more interested in their class. It was very distracting, honestly.

During one particular class period they were discussing the role of travel experience in many personal narratives, and the teacher asked them if they truly wanted to travel or not. And, if so, would they be willing to go for an open-ended amount of time, as had the author they were studying, or for an extended period like during a gap year before college.

This is the book the college English class was reading at the time. Of course, they only had time for an excerpt…

I’m paraphrasing here, but the general consensus was “eh, not really.” One girl said she’d be willing to do that if maybe she weren’t afraid of failing. “Failing what?!,” the teacher asked. “How can you fail at life experience?” The student just replied that she needed to keep to her plan for college. A gap year before starting school might derail that. Several students jumped in with statistics (whether real or perceived, I’m not sure) on the decreased likelihood of going to college after a gap year.

In general, the class lumped the idea of travel into the same category as everything else they do on their phones…nice to look at or think about for a break, but definitely not “real life.” One kid said, “I don’t really even care if the Instagram photos are fake on other people’s feeds. I’m just looking for an escape.”

Just to bring that thought home: They are 18 years old and see actual travel as a distraction from their lives as high school students, which are so stressful to them that they need to escape by looking at other people’s possibly/probably fake travel experiences.

I don’t even know what to do with that.

gorgeous yellowstone shot

This is a pic from Yellowstone National Park taken with an iPhone this summer. How can you not want to see parts of our own country that look like this?!! OK, I admit to this being a cheap #blessed #humblebrag of my vacation. But look at it!

What kind of teenagers feel so trapped by their possible life choices that their dreams of “getting out of here” just involve taking the next step they were told to do by their parents for fear that if they make a mistake their whole lives will be ruined? Where is the rebellion? Where is the desire to claim their futures as their own? Where is the arrogance that they know better than their predecessors?

Where, for the love of all that is brilliantly adolescent, is the fire for life breathed in on graduation day and exhaled out in the glorious rush of youth and ignorance and imagined immortality?

Instead, here are a few words my sociology class, an academic elective made up of juniors and seniors, used to describe how they feel about their futures:

Fearful. Overwhelmed. Behind. Pressured. Isolated. Powerless.

One girl, when I pushed them to answer the question “what do you want for your future?” replied, “I’m just waiting for someone to tell me what to do.”

How’s that for broken 17 -and 18-year-olds? I just kept thinking that we’re turning them into Matt Damon’s character from Good Will Hunting. They know a lot of stuff, but have no idea how to live. (Fair warning, this clip has some NSFW words.)

I looked into the eyes of funny, talented, engaging 18-year-old men and women who felt they have no autonomy over their own lives. That’s not their fault. It’s ours.

Well, That’s All Very Sad but Now What?

I do not have the power, or perhaps more accurately the energy, to change how or why the public school system works the way it does in our community. But I can change how I parent my own kids who are in it and, maybe, offer some ideas about how we can all help our students. And since I will have a teenager in my home until the year 2031, that’s pretty important to me. Here are some ideas on how we can equip our teens while they are tangled up in this system of our own making.

  1. Help them set “work hours” guidelines. I know we all grew up finishing our homework every night, but that legitimately might not be possible. Public school teachers of different departments in no way collaborate to set homework guidelines, late work policies, or due dates. Set a time deadline. Give your kid permission to be done at a certain time of night, even if they’re not quite finished. Because we all live in a world where work emails can come in 24/7, none of us are ever completely finished before we go to bed. Students need to learn this isn’t normal before they’re adults and think that their jobs have the right to control their evenings as well as their days. 
  2. Take their phones at night. I said phones, but it could be iPads, video games, whatever. This is an unpopular task in our house, but all minds need time to rest and younger minds especially so. Read. Write in a journal. Play a board game with a sibling. But at a certain point, you have to be done getting noise from the outside world. Students don’t know how to discern between “desperately urgent” and “that can wait until tomorrow.” We have to teach them that it’s OK to leave some things unanswered for a moment. Even a text from a friend.  
  3. Let them fail without yelling at them. This is legitimately challenging, I know. They spend hours upon hours doing their homework, but it is not all equally important. They are probably bad at prioritizing what needs to be done when. And they may still not get it right even when it’s all complete. They may tank a test, forget an assignment….and they will live. The idea that if they don’t have perfect grades and don’t get into the Best College Ever that their lives will be ruined is a bit ridiculous. I’m pretty sure I have more education than most of the people I interact with on a regular basis and it makes me very little money in comparison to most of those same people. College isn’t everything and the one college your neighbor’s/sister’s/cousin’s kid got into isn’t the only good one out there. We have to all get off this crazy train before our kids hurt themselves. Now. And, honestly, I don’t think I’m being melodramatic. My teenager’s school, the same one I was substituting in, had a 2-hour-long presentation on teenage suicide prevention this week for all 9th graders. Failing at a THING shouldn’t make you feel like you, personally, are a failure. 
  4. Give them a bigger world. Every adult knows that high school (or college for that matter) is not the end all, be all of life. In fact, I’ve spent as many years of my life out of college as I did in all the years before graduation. School is just a moment, and although it is important to get an education, it’s neither a magic pill to success nor a grueling gauntlet to adulthood. It’s just life. When you can see outside of this place…through travel or time outdoors or volunteering or just discussing the news together, students begin to get a sense that there is more to life than this one moment. Otherwise, they tend to have great difficulty seeing the forest for the trees. One of my children spent time working outside on our porch today. It was bright and warm, but with just that bite of fall weather in the wind, and he said, “Man! It smells so free out there!” when he came back inside. My goodness, I want my kids to think the world sometimes smells free and not that the only things that matter are summative assessments and national standards.  
  5.  Be nice to them. I suppose you might have a truly lazy kid who doesn’t care at all about their future, but I highly doubt it. Every teenager I’ve ever met, and there are literally thousands, wanted to succeed. They just may not be able to figure out how. My mother, a retired teacher, told me when I first started teaching that whenever a kid just rubbed me the wrong way, to pray that I would find something special in that child to love. Because every human being is precious, you can always find something. And she was right. Kindness goes a long way in getting openness and honestly out of an adolescent, even your own kid. Ask them what was hard about their day and just listen. Don’t try to fix it. And then maybe give them candy and a hug and a nap.
charlie walking on a boardwalk

My very own teenager, the first of four humans I’m grateful to be raising. I really want to get this part as close to right as I can.

It is a herculean feat to raise a child through this system who feels empowered to make their own life choices, strong enough to withstand failure, and brave enough to go against the grain. It is hard to teach them how to find comfort in those around them when so many of our students are too busy to learn the nuances needed for meaningful conversation.

The Georgia Department of Education recently released an overview of the results of its stakeholders’ survey for K-12 schools. One particular trend identified by the GADOE stood out to me.

“In general, parents and teachers feel the standards do a better job preparing students for college than for careers and life.”

Well, then. What in the world are we doing?

It’s time to stop trying so hard to make sure our students “win” and start asking ourselves what game, exactly, we are teaching them to play. Because if we’re raising people to be successful for the 4 years that come between the ages of 18 and 22 and not much else, no one’s winning in that system. And we’re all going to need a lot more comfort than we can get from just candy and a nap.

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