A Teacher’s Bias Against High School
While we’ve only been in school for a couple of months, I field questions about my intentions after my residency year with surprising frequency. Everyone seems to want to know if I intend to stay at this high school if given the opportunity. In many ways, I do not know how to answer. I. have really enjoyed the high school I’ve been working in, but it was my experience as a teaching fellow in a middle school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, that inspired me to pursue teaching as my permanent career. I am grappling with some of my previously held biases about teaching at the high school level.
The American education system is itself a minefield of worst practices and vestigial garbage left over from this nation’s painful history of colonialism, racism, moralism, and capitalism. Elements of these spectres leak in and haunt education at all levels, but none more obvious than high school.
Colleges and universities celebrate capitalism and cost an excessive amount of money. Millennials are the first generation of Americans to carry this level of student loan debt, and those coming after us are extremely aware of what lies ahead for them. However, the culture and reality of community colleges are not the same monolithic, capitalist institutions that NYU and Ivies are. The purpose of these universities is to groom students to join the middle and upper classes by unlocking career opportunities for those who are deemed “worthy.” Community colleges are the elementary schools of post-secondary education. Their mandate is to provide all students, even those not well served by competitive and fast-paced high school education with appropriate post-secondary education needed for college and career. There are commonly held beliefs that individuals who pursue education at the college level want to be there and are not held there out of some external governmental mandate.
Elementary schools exist on an idealistic plane. When children are small, there is a more pervasive belief that all students have the capacity to learn and grow into productive members of society. Elementary school students are supported by teachers, aides, and administration in an age appropriate and true it-takes-a-village way. It is common for societies to use children as idealistic concepts and it is easy for even the most conservative among us to support quality elementary schools. It is in elementary school that students begin to learn to perform the basic intellectual functions necessary for a well-rounded life in our society: reading, writing, basic mathematical literacy. As a system, it’s far from perfect, considering that hundreds of black and brown kids as young as preschoolers are suspended and expelled each year out of gross biases that suggest that these young minds are somehow less capable. The fact of the matter stands, though, that the education system tries much harder to provide equitable education at the elementary level.
Middle schools are the period of time when expectations of kids, families, and teachers start to shift in an interesting way. Adults have a really intriguing tendency toward the logical fallacy that young teens are practically adults. Kids start going through puberty, one of the most traumatic developmental periods since they were expelled from their mother’s’ bodies. Girls as young as eleven suddenly have breasts and menstrual cycles. Twelve year old boys tower over their teachers in a way they never have before. Brains rage with an unfamiliar cocktail of neurotransmitters that cause low impulse control, particularly with carnal cravings, mood swings, and delusions of grandeur. Black, brown, and disabled students are disciplined at astronomical rates. By middle school, decisions are made about children ages 9–12 that will have significant impacts on their schooling and career opportunities for the rest of their lives. Middle school children are the most obvious transition period between childhood and adulthood, adolescence be damned.
By high school, adults have jumped the shark entirely, expecting students experiencing a total lack of control over their own bodies and minds to be held fully accountable for their behavior, as if adolescence isn’t a third discrete developmental period all humans experience. Fourteen year old children are tried and sentenced as adults for crimes they don’t have the capacity to understand the full ramifications of. We expect fifteen and sixteen year olds to have a plan for the rest of their lives as a matter of course. Then, we are shocked and dismayed to find that kids fall into the same logical traps and conceive of themselves as grown enough to make decisions that last a lifetime, resulting in poor decision making with regards to high-risk sex and drug use.
And so we, like every generation that has come before us, lacking entirely in usable self-awareness, treat teenagers as if they are adults. We see their inability to do certain high-order executive functioning tasks as evidence of incompetence and laziness on their part when it is more realistically the opposite. Our society loves to demonize that which is new and youthful. We bemoan the changing values with each passing generation. All social ills fall at the feet of Gen Xers, Millennials, and now, the iGen. There is no one responsible for creating the culture and values in which these children are raised. How can we have the audacity to blame anyone but ourselves?
High school’s primary purpose is to move students from the childhood halls of middle school and into the fake-adult world of college or the so-called “real world”. In places in which high school admissions are competitive, and in all high schools more broadly since the passage of No Child Left Behind, high schools become numbers factories. Students are practically bullied into achieving high grades and test scores to benefit the school’s graduation rate and AYP numbers or they’re transferred and herded out of the system so that they don’t have the opportunity to drag anyone else down. In rural schools in which most of the available work is blue-collar and does not require traditional higher education, students are sometimes just passed along so that they can move on from their life, under the assumption that they are either unable to learn the content or the content and skills are irrelevant to their life. Students who are behaviorally difficult are often referred to deans and other administrators. These referrals typically result in disciplinary action that effectively remove the student from the education environment that is least restrictive for their learning.
Student learning is less valued than student outcomes. Teachers feel pressured to force content at unnatural speeds to ensure all exam content is covered without the time to develop students’ executive functioning and social-emotional skills. This dynamic makes me hesitant to sign up to be a high school teacher for the rest of my life. I have not yet been convinced that middle school, where there is more space for teachers to develop students in a holistic way, isn’t where I belong.
I will continue to operate just as I always have, placing student needs first. I will support these babies in getting what they need, even if that is just a college recommendation letter, or not. I will support the social and emotional development of these kids without assuming they shs without assuming they should already be developed. I have identified these things as biases from my own experience as a high school student and from some of the study I have done on the impact of No Child Left Behind. I am intrigued to see how my continued experience this year will affect my decision when the time comes.