“It’s been 4 years, and I never took a book home!” At my high school graduation, each of us was allowed to make a one sentence statement at the mic after accepting our diploma. This was my contribution. It was true, and many of my classmates knew it, so I received thunderous applause and hopped spryly off the dais as the next graduate thanked some teachers and talked about her hopes for college next year.
I, on the other hand, could not have talked about my hopes for college even if I wanted to. As a student who had not completed a single homework assignment during his four years in high school, it is hardly surprising that I was also rejected from the one college I applied to: partially because I had a cumulative GPA of 1.1 and partially because I failed to submit my SAT scores with my application because I couldn’t be bothered. My life at 17 was taken up in equal parts by skateboarding, petty crime, skinhead parties, and my two part-time jobs: one as a carpet cleaner at Woodbridge Car Wash, and one as the late night dishwasher at the Chinese food restaurant next to the car wash. –Where the head cook wouldn’t let me clean the knives because I was a “silly white boy.”
By most standards, at the end of my K-12 career, I was a failure. My SAT scores were good because of a long time love of reading, but I participated in no extracurriculars, I ranked 109 out of a class of 121 graduates, I didn’t have any real job prospects and I wasn’t even living at home–I crashed in a friend’s basement on a cot next to his drumset (nothing like being woken to the metallic splash of a Zildjian cymbal each afternoon). As a statistic, I represented the failure of an education system that tracks its students until graduation, and no further. I was that 2% you don’t care about when you read that a high school has a 98% college acceptance rate. I was the child left behind, become the man who couldn’t move forward.
How I rebounded is a story for another time, but one would assume that I did rebound as it would be curious if I was hired to teach at our model, caring, intimate, little school here in the Baltics if I had not. The point I would like to make today, in honor of our inaugural edition’s focus on education, is that we should never, as students, as teachers or as parents, view success through a K-12 lens.
In my career teaching, I have known students who scored a 32 on their IB exams, but are now attending Brown, Berkeley and Harvard for graduate school. I have also seen students who matriculate having earned 44s get crushed under the demands that 100-level college courses make of them. Through the power of social media, I have seen the quiet kid in the corner, the smart-aleck kid who always arrives late and the pouty kid who never does her work all move on to become UN interns, Korean TV celebrities and clerks for federal justices; while the valedictorian, the editor of the school paper and the student Secretary-General of the MUN team sometimes drop out of college in less than a year.
I am not arguing that secondary education does not matter–that would be an odd position for a high school teacher to adopt. I am suggesting that we cannot fully gauge the impact of our school years until well after they are over. I recommend we all adopt a K-24 mindset–with an endpoint that takes us right about to age 30. I am dating myself here, but through Facebook, Instagram and Skype I have watched my students blossom over the years, but very few of them are comfortable, competent, complete human beings until well into their late 20s. Who is fully ready to take on life at 18?
Between K-12 and K-24 you start to see clear evidence of what teachers call “the unwritten curriculum” –the learning that takes place outside of preparation for exams and college acceptance. When my former students contact me, it’s never to talk about their AP results or their study guides for IB, it’s to ask me who I am voting for in the next election (“Not Trump”), whether they should take that job offer in Dubai or if they should pursue law or international studies. The only time of their lives that students will use social media to post status updates and share memes about how hellish IB is, is while they are in an IB program. And that is a very, very short period of their lives. Then they get on to things that actually matter.
This is hard for all of us: students want high scores on their IB exams either for themselves, or to please their parents and families, or because of competition with their peers. Parents want their children to be successful and to have opportunities that they did not. Teachers do everything in their power to make their students’ current and future lives as rewarding and meaningful as possible. For all, the shorthand of these desires is often conveyed through grades and exam results. We can all do better.
Luckily, at ISE there are few students planning to announce their homeworkless careers on graduation day (I think). Our students’ challenges speak more to the pressures involved with craving success, adapting to a demanding curriculum and perceiving the scrutiny of peers, parents and teachers. I have also learned in my short time here that everyone–teachers, staff and students–prefer to emphasize the things that will matter most when our students are 30: compassion, lifelong learning and community. If we can keep reminding each other that in the long run these things matter most, we will find not only that we have helped each other achieve our goals, but that we have accomplished something actually worthy of applause at graduation–and 12 years later, as well.