This year I begin my 20th year in teaching. And fortunately, I have been able to teach all 20 in the same place . . . the same amazing, insane, enriching, mind numbing, rewarding place. During that 20 years, I have taught almost every grade level from 6-12, but my passion is for high school students; yes, for the dreaded teenager. It’s been quite a journey, and in honor of that road, I have decided to compile the ten things I have learned about kids along the way. So, here it goes.
1. Start with the lie and move to the truth. All students have a touch of the classic image manager. In fact, they are a reflection of most adults in this way. As a result, they will downright lie at first when questioned over an issue that could have potential negative consequences for them. The excuses can be elaborate and well thought out. They can also be hilarious. Years ago, my friend and co-worker assigned an oral history essay. Students had to interview a parent or grandparent about a time that person lived through in the past and then write about it. One student failed to turn it in. When my friend contacted the mom about her son’s delinquent assignment, the mom indicated that she had a problem with the essay requirements. When my friend asked why, she stated, “My son told me that you wanted them to interview a hobo, and I will not have my son speaking to a hobo!” Talk about finding a clever way out of work. The old “dog ate my homework” excuse has evolved into “lightning struck my internet.” “I emailed it to you. Did you not get it?” “My printer ran out of toner, and a car struck the transformer by my house.” “I emailed it to myself and now I can’t remember my password.” I can literally count on one hand the students who have demonstrated immediate transparency in work related or disciplinary situations, and even then, I didn’t believe them at first glance. The upside is that you can lead a student to the truth. It just takes a good deal of patience and a little bit of time.
2. Students crave structure. They also hate it. With a passion. “I love our new dress code,” said no student ever. You can hear the strains of discord echoing through the hallways, in the lunch room, and on every social media outlet. Rules infuriate. Policy changes mid-stream send students to the ledge. Yet, a curious thing happens when students watch rules enforced. Their eyes light up when that perpetual dress code violator gets nailed in the hallway. They get tingly when that student who never comes to school on time gets sent to Saturday school. They cry foul when the rules aren’t followed. They ask and re-ask about final exam schedules because they don’t want to be late. They can quote the policy handbook verbatim and deny its very existence when it is conducive to them. Over the years, I have taught the protestors who were apt to stage boycotts and “sit ins,” and I have also taught the social justice seekers and policy makers who tried to find a way to work with the system to change perceived injustice. Probably the most frustrated students are the rule followers. They see inequity everywhere they look, but we need them desperately, because eventually, they are most likely to fight for right everywhere they go.
3. Middle school students have no souls. And they smell like metal. They are metallic. If you are a middle school teacher, you are on some grand expeditionary force to rescue the souls of humankind. Good luck with all that.
4. They look at their phones too much. I am convinced that the medical technologies of the future will have to cure carpal tunnel of the the thumbs. Recently, I drove by the middle school next door to where I teach while recess was in progress. What I saw were a few kids playing a game with a ball. The majority of kids had found the shade of a tree to check their Twitter. This is the dark underbelly of the smart phone. It does so much good and provides so many useful tools for our children, but it is singlehandedly robbing them of skills- skills like eye contact, complete sentence exchanges and the ability to endure solitude and silence. On the flip side, students of today are far more sophisticated than the students of 20 years ago. They understand subtlety and nuance, innuendo and subtext in ways that are astoundingly adult-like. And that’s not all bad. The beast has been unleashed. There is no going back even if that were the best idea, and it isn’t. So, we must continue to remind them and ourselves to look up once in awhile. We might be missing out on a God opportunity right before our eyes because we can’t stop looking down.
5. They still love vandalizing the bathrooms. Mostly, the boys. Girls see the bathroom as their office space, much like Fonzie in Happy Days. This is a place they can escape during class to answer that urgent text, do their hair, paint their nails, pierce each other’s ears, etc. Boys, not so much. I have never understood this. So, you are sitting or standing there answering nature’s call. And your next thought is a Sharpie to the wall? Unrolling every toilet paper drum into the floor? Flooding the sink? Overflowing the toilet? Boys are, respectfully, dumb.
6. Teenagers are just smart enough to be self-aware and just dumb enough to think they can change the world. And I love it. Old people, like myself, lose our way in this department. We get stuck in our complacency, in our views, in our routines. We lose the will to dream because that will is replaced with the responsibilities we shoulder. The mundane takes precedence over possibility. Students have a luxury of time and space that is needed for dreams to thrive. We can all take a lesson from their openness to the opportunities in the world around them. Maybe we have shut a few doors that need to be cracked open again. Maybe we have closed a few windows in rooms that need airing out. Living amongst the young reminds you of that truth daily and convinces you that you really can change your three feet of influence.
7. They know when you are lying. Instantly. Teenagers can see through to your ignorance, your inconsistency, your forgetfulness, and your flaws. When you stand in front of them in a classroom or raise them in your own home, you become extremely vulnerable. I have very little self-esteem left and even a smaller amount of dignity. I have been told I looked pregnant in a jumper dress I wore in the 90’s. I have been told my sweater color looked like vomit. I even had one student imitate the Mary Katherine Gallagher “Superstar” move from SNL when I tried to wear something a little out of my comfort zone (thanks, David Kitchen). I have accidentally put on the same shoe in two different colors and worn them to school only to be called out by first period. They tell me when my hair needs a highlight or a cut. They know when I am about to cry, or when I don’t know the answer to their question. They know when I am ready to be silly and when I am ready to get down to business. They remember what stories I have told them three times already, and they let me tell them again so it takes up class time. They know me . . . sometimes better than I know myself. So what’s the lesson. Be willing to be wrong. Be willing to ask forgiveness. Be willing to be real and transparent. Faking perfection has a hollow tone, and that tone happens to be in their frequency. Modeling what it looks like to fail and get back up again is one of the most valuable lessons you can give the children in your charge. Which leads me to . . .
8. They need failure. It’s as necessary to their development as milk is to bone growth. Believe me, as a parent, I am fully aware this is one of the most difficult things to watch your children live. I find my bear claws coming out when I see my son hurt. It feels unnatural and counter-intuitive to let them fall. We spend our whole lives trying to keep them alive, healthy and well. So, when someone hurts them, when they experience injustice (real or perceived), or when their own decisions bring painful consequences, our gut reaction is to do what we have been trained to do: save them. The students I began with 20 years ago, by and large, were raised by parents who were slow to rescue. After I contacted a mom one day about her son’s antics in my class, she brought a ping pong paddle to school to spank her ninth grader. I will never forget the look on his face when she knocked on the door of my classroom. Today, that trend has shifted. We live in a culture dominated by distrust for authority and a deep-seated need to deflect criticism or correction . The “everybody gets a trophy” mentality pervades the educational institutions in America, so by the time students reach the high school level, many of them have not yet fully experienced what it means to lose. Consequently, many of them also don’t know what it takes to win. Advanced technology means that students often get to parents first when they encounter difficulty in the school setting, and if you want to know how that turns out, refer to number #1. The truth is I have had some amazing teachers and adult mentors in my life pouring wisdom into my heart by the bucketful. But the best teacher I have ever had is pain. It’s truth is seared in my soul, sustaining me through the shifting seas of life. Why would we rob our own children, our life blood, of this eternal lifejacket?
9. Never ask a “yes or no” question to a group of teenagers. If you want “yes,” they will yell out “no.” if you want “no,” they will yell out “yes.” Corporately, they are incapable of answering this the way you hope, because their entire goal in life at this age is to give you the opposite of what you desire. Find another way to ask the question.
10. You never know what a student may be going through at home. You might not know that a student doesn’t really have one. There have been times in my career that I thought it would be more productive to bring a blanket, a pillow and a light snack for a kid I knew was experiencing hardships when they left the protection of the school environment. Students who silently endured this difficulty, trudging through everyday as best they could. Students who didn’t ask to be the center of attention or didn’t put their struggles on display during prayer requests. Other times, I have underestimated the circumstances a student has been in, believing that I, in my great wisdom, could adequately diagnose the source of his/her misbehavior, bad grades, lack of motivation, etc. And I have been wrong. It is humbling. The truth is we never fully understand what a child might have been through or might be going through. As a result, we have to leave room for the unknown, and be the lighthouse on the hilltop. A place of peace and security for those students who are not afforded that foundation. We have to learn to listen to their stories, to really read their writing, and to watch the signs. If we rush to judgment, we limit a child. And they will live up to exactly what we ask of them, nothing more.
Oh, and one for the road . . .
11. They will teach you if you let them. Over the years, I have watched students battle adversity with more resilience than I could ever hope to have. I have watched them fight forces beyond their control with a supernatural ferocity. I have watched them display grace in the face of tremendous grief. I have watched them lose their parents, their siblings and their classmates to illness and to accident and somehow find the courage to keep showing up. I have watched them fight disability and handicap. I have watched them handle career ending injuries and see their future plans dissolve before their very eyes. I have watched them come to the aid of both friend and foe in great need. I have watched them face life altering diagnoses, and I have watched them endure unspeakable treatments. I have watched them scratch and claw and fight to reach a goal. I have watched them achieve tremendous victories and pick themselves up after sickening defeat. I have watched. And I have learned. Learned, in fact, much more than any educational objective I have ever imparted. And that’s the most valuable thing I have learned about kids over all these years. If you will allow it, you will never stop learning. And when you learn, you teach. And when you teach, you learn.
So, here’s to another 20.