Last Thursday I happened to be in the kitchen getting some coffee when my 9th grade daughter came home from school. Sophia was in a really bad mood, but I just figured she needed a snack. She is one of those people (like me) who can get pretty crabby when hungry. I asked her how her day was, and she sort of mumbled something about leaving her alone. I brushed it off and went back to work knowing she would probably be fine once she had something to eat.
Dinner time wasn’t much better. Like lots of teenagers today, Sophia is binge-watching a TV show on her phone. I don’t mind as long as she finishes her homework and isn’t neglecting the other things she has to do. That has never been a problem with her. I think she is actually the most driven, disciplined, and organized person I know. If anything I am a little concerned that she expects too much of herself.
After asking her to shut her phone off at the table, I noticed that her attitude was the same as after school. I asked her if something was wrong, and she had the same retort as before, but this time with a lot more emphasis! Most people with teenage daughters know what it’s like. It wasn’t until we were on our way to soccer practice that she began to open up. There is something magical about a long car ride with some good music that seems to prime great conversations between my kids and me. Out of the blue Sophia blurts out, “My school is so stupid!” I asked her what she meant, and she started in on a 20 minute rant about her day.
“I hate having to get up so early in the morning for school. If I want to have time to actually eat a good breakfast and take a shower I have to get up like at 5:30 am. That’s just crazy! When we got to school today the bus was actually a little bit early so they keep us in this one area like a bunch of penned in animals. It’s like they think we are going to destroy the school if they actually let us go to our lockers and get ready for class.”
It was at this point I realized her story might make a poignant statement about secondary education in our country, and I wanted to capture it so I could use it later. I asked her if she would mind if I recorded her story on my phone, and she said she didn’t care, and added “Maybe if you write about it, Pappa, my teachers might read it and actually change.” I sort of laughed at the thought that my little blog could yield such power. Without missing a beat she started back in.
“I wish they would let us take our backpacks to class. I can’t possibly carry everything, so I have to go back to my locker between every class – and get to be yelled at for the privilege! You know, sometimes my locker is on the opposite side of the school, and God forbid I have to go to the bathroom. There is no way I could get to my locker, put my stuff away in my backpack, get all the right stuff out for the next class, go to the bathroom, and get to my next class on time.
So anyway, on Friday I put my stuff in my locker and I am sort of skipping and singing down the hallway to class, and I get yelled at to “cut it out, and get to class!” I wanted so bad to say to him, “Cut what out? Being happy?” It’s like some teachers I believe really think that we are not supposed to have fun at all in school. So I get yelled at, and I’m not even doing anything. It’s not like I was even doing anything wrong.
So then there is first hour. I hate first hour! We had a math test today and the teacher gave us the review sheet yesterday. We spent the first ten minutes correcting the review sheet, and then he wouldn’t even answer any questions because we had the test. What’s the point of giving us a review sheet if we are going to correct it the day of the test? Aren’t we supposed to be able to study from it??
So that was the start of another wonderful day at school. Spanish class was ok. The teacher shares things from her personal life and we do some projects, so it isn’t all just sitting there.
The next thing was at lunch. First, it’s crazy that I have lunch a 10:30 in the morning. Then I’m not supposed to eat anything until after school? Lunch is like a prison. We get yelled at to sit down, we get yelled at to stay in line, and we get yelled at to clean up. It’s like they think we are a bunch of wild animals.
The food is horrible. There isn’t anything fresh, and about the only good thing is the Ice’s (sparkling water), but they cost twice as much as in the store. Anyway, so I finish my lunch and I am leaving when the teacher stops me because I have half a bottle of water in my hand. He tells me I can’t take it out of the cafeteria, and that I have to throw it away. I said to him “Are you serious?” and he threatened to give me detention. I mean, come on…we’re not even allow to drink water?
I thought my day couldn’t get any worse, but in science the teacher was explaining some stuff about the periodic table. I pulled out my phone to look up something about the charges and he walked over and took it away. He didn’t ask me what I was doing, he didn’t ask me to give it to him. He just took it out of my hand and put it in his desk. It made me so mad, the only thing I could think about the rest of the class were arguments for why he is a horrible teacher. He didn’t seem to notice.
Then in my last class I started to get a bad kink in my neck. I tried to sit up, but that didn’t last long. I started rubbing my neck and tried to push the corner of the hard plastic part of the top of the chair back between my shoulders, but it was hard to get into the right position in those stupid desks. The teacher stopped what she was doing and asked me if something was wrong. I started screaming at her in my head that “yeah there is something f$%&1#$ wrong. I am paralyzed because I have been chained to these f$%#&@#$ seats all day.” I didn’t actually say anything, of course, because everyone knows what she really meant was to stop messing around and pay attention.
So you keep asking me why I am in a bad mood. I’d like to see how you would feel at the end of my day. Knowing you, you wouldn’t even be able to get through the first class without being sent to the office!”
I chuckled and said she was probably right, but I wanted to dig a little deeper. “Ok, I get why you would be crabby, but if you could change things, what would you do?”
“Well, for starters I would let kids move around more, and go outside. We have this beautiful courtyard at school, but nobody is ever allowed to use it. The only time I was in it was last year when a teacher made us pull weeds.”
Sophia paused for a second to collect her thoughts, and then continued.
“It’s like the teachers don’t respect the students at all. They’re always yelling at you…they take your stuff if they think you’re doing something you shouldn’t be, without bothering to find out what was going on…they tell you to sit down and pay attention. Like, could you imagine if I commanded a teacher to “sit down and pay attention?” I have heard teachers say we should respect them. Well, how can I respect them when they don’t respect me? Just because they can make me do what they want doesn’t mean I respect them.”
And then there was a long pause. I couldn’t believe that school is really this horrible for her all the time. It must just be that she had a really bad day. I decided to follow up with a positive question. “So, what do you like about school? There must be somethings you like?”
“My friends, and seeing what all the other kids are wearing, and what they’re doing. I also like watching what they do, like, who they hang out with, and being able to see the different patterns and stuff.”
“OK, that’s normal”, I confirmed. “Human beings are social animals, we learn through social interaction. I think if you asked most students in America what they like the most about school, their response would include something about friends. But isn’t there anything else you like about school?” Her comment defines my whole point in this blog.
“Well, there are a couple of teachers I like. They are nice, and they tell us things about their lives that I can relate to. Other than that, I am told what to do all day, I don’t get to eat when I need to, I don’t get to drink when I need to, and I don’t even get to go to the bathroom when I need to. Would you want to have to spend your whole day there every day for years?”
Obviously, no adults would tolerate another adult talking to them the way Sophia described. The lack of respect seems obvious when you’re thinking of it in those terms. What bothers me the most is that I think every adult in the country can relate to some of Sophia’s experiences, and unfortunately, I see these type of behaviors, and systems of command and control in almost every secondary school I visit. The country seems obsessed with Personalized Learning right now. It has become the latest and greatest answer to all of educations woes. What I am often seeing in the name of personalization, however, is the implementation of a set curricula that can be adjusted for individual students, within the same old command and control structure.
I say, if you really want to help students personalize learning, start with building a culture of respect for each student. Until that has been established, it isn’t even possible for the student to engage in the meaningful ways it would take for them to truly personalize their learning.
Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.
Chief Operating Officer