Are you surviving high school 2020?
Pre-2020, I usually described my job in public education like this: “I enjoy helping students find a pathway that fulfills them – and it’s never boring, never the same thing twice.”
While those sentiments still ring true, more recently I’ve been telling people that my job is “herding invisible cats.” I have a sense that students are out there, and that some of my actions are supporting them, but in the fuzziness of distance learning, it is very challenging to know. (This author speaks to the tendency to focus on “ghosts,” which is a helpful way to prioritize.)
This is my 27th year in high school. Four years figuring it out myself. And 23 more helping other people’s kids navigate it. Year 27. And year 1. Year 1 of parenting a high school student- in a pandemic, no less- which means his high school experience is not unfolding in the next town over from my office, but in the next room. And year 1 of trying to support other peoples’ kids in this crazy as well.
Time to Reflect: Surviving High School 2020
2020 has turned out to be a year of deep introspection and reflection for us as individuals, and as a society. And though I’ve spent well over half my life in high school, I don’t reflect on my own high school experience as much as I might. Do you?
I am grateful to still be friends with a handful of my closest friends from high school.
The ones I stayed up all night with at slumber parties (often, embarrassingly, trying to crimp our hair). The ones I coordinated matching outfits with for school dances. The ones I practiced with for elaborate dance performances. And the ones I drove to late night restaurants with at a time when 16-year-olds could drive other sixteen-year-olds.
I recently asked them: what do YOU remember from high school?
(We were all “good students,” but I am the only one in education. The others have had some separation from this world we all live in.)
Ask yourself the same question: What do YOU remember from high school? Do you remember your teachers or the subject? The person or the content?
It’s the “who” not the “what.”
I have fleeting memories of classes. Mental snapshots of school events. And absolutely zero recollection of any of the day to day workings of a school- assemblies, announcements, standardized testing – (all things I have spent WAY too much of my career planning, organizing, and preparing for.)
Similarly, it’s the “why” not the “where.”
I have been in a lot of schools. I have attended schools in snowy suburban Wisconsin and the sprawling outdoor campuses in the Silicon Valley. I have volunteered in schools in historic buildings in Washington DC, and in air conditioned boxes in Texas. I have taught in stuffy classrooms in Houston and in hard-to-warm spaces in San Jose.
Schools are not about the buildings, except when they are at the very bottom rungs of disrepair. As an extension of my initial work with Teach for America I have toured countless classrooms in under-resourced districts. There is a “floor” (pardon the pun) of basic construction – a sound roof and structure, a functioning HVAC system, sufficient seating – but once that is met, everything else is bells and whistles.
And no one remembers it. If you have a clear memory of a school or classroom, it probably has to do with why you were there. The teacher who hosted your club in their room. The locker room where a storied coach gave pep talks. Or the space that housed your chosen activities- the band room, the green room, the computer lab. Because it’s the why not the where.
And it’s the “how” not the “when”.
I have worked with thousands of ninth graders. Many of them- and their families- seem to think there is some sort of map or user’s guide to high school that my colleagues and I are hiding from them. So what’s the secret to high school? After all, after 27 years shouldn’t I have THE answer? Hint: There is more than one right answer.
There is more than one time to take that class. There is more than one club to join that will bring fulfillment. There is more than one sport that will keep you active. And there is more than one year to try again. And if we don’t allow teens to make -and recover from- a few mistakes in high school we are failing our kids. Let that sink in. By keeping your kid from failing, you are failing them. Why? Because setbacks are how you learn.
When teachers teach students first, material second, kids learn more, and remember more. And that simple reality is why I feel so strongly about social-emotional learning. And for teachers who *think* they don’t have time for this, news flash: you are either actually already doing this in your own way – you just need to give yourself credit where credit is due.
Recently our district hosted a student panel for them to share their thoughts on our first full semester in distance learning. In case you don’t have the opportunity to get this kind of feedback: they appreciate the connections you are forging – and they want more – so keep it up.
Here are some quick ideas to help you in surviving high school 2020:
- Share your pets, your kids, your custom Zoom background – anything personal – with your students (and encourage them to share back).
- Do a welcome back check in with each student – put them in break out rooms and check in. (This may take more than one class period, but the effects will be lasting.)
- Make a class playlist of song requests and play one (or more) at the beginning of each class.
- Start each class with a fun Question of the Day for everyone to answer – even you!
- Use a structured activity in a break-out room to allow kids to connect.
Teach the student, and the curriculum will follow. Because if you haven’t connected with the student, then, as you well know, you are only “teaching” a bunch of blank Zoom squares. And none of us signed up to do that…