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Pardon My Ignorance But ... Is High School Really This Crazy?

I kissed lesson planning and grading papers goodbye this year.  After having my third child, I stepped out of my middle school writing classroom and took a part-time position as the alumni relations manager at my school. I haven't looked back.

My primary role in this new position is to make sure all 123 alums are on track to graduate from the 45 different high schools they attend.  After 12 years in K-8 education, I'm finally getting a glimpse of the world of high school—and it's a totally different, sometimes bizarre, world.   

I recently helped one student transfer from a high school on Chicago's more affluent north side to an up-and-coming high school on the city's more impoverished west side. The student had complained that the north side students were snobbish and bullying her by exclusion. Despite her efforts to make friends, she said she ate lunch alone every day and had no social life.   

She was one of my sweetest, highest performing students in my middle school, and now she was refusing to go back to her high school.  

After I helped her transfer, she quickly made friends at her new school.  But some details about her first day gave me pause.  For example, she told me her geography teacher told her this: "There are only two things you need to know about me: 1) I swear a lot and 2) I never wanted to be a teacher; I wanted to be a pimp with 150 hoes." 

My mouth dropped. Was the jump between middle school and high school that steep? Middle school teachers might slip in a cuss word here or there, but normalizing foul language and admitting to once wanting to invest in the sex trade is something totally different!

But that's not all:  this teacher reportedly called another female student a "grade whore" when she inquired about the specifics of her grade.


The alum told me that the class laughed. They knew this teacher was outrageous, which made him hands-down their favorite teacher.  

I understand using humor to enhance your instruction and relate to students, but didn't he cross the line? I asked my husband, and all I'll say is that I pity the teacher who would say that to our daughter!

I wish that were all, but my alum told me that her new math teacher was also quite noteworthy.  A girl asked him a question about a math problem and the teacher told her, "Please don't ask me another dumb question like that."

The problem is that my former student, who had always struggled in math, was pondering the very same question. She told me she was so glad she hadn't asked it in class and that she probably wouldn't be asking the teacher any questions in the future—a strategy she just cannot afford to have. 

Now I know these two teachers do not represent all the brilliant high school teachers across our great land. But in my short experience working with high school students, it does seem like high school teachers have much more liberty to be themselves and speak their minds than elementary school teachers. We K-8-ers are expected to not just teach, but to nurture, innovate, inspire.   

High school seems much more rigid and less forgiving.

There's another alum who I'm trying to help transfer out of her high school. She attends a charter high school that gets to make lots of its own rules. One of the rules is that if a student gets x-number of detentions then that student must repeat the grade—even if she has a 4.0 GPA.  

Well, my alum was going through some difficulties in her personal life and like a typical teen in that situation, she rebelled against many of the school rules.  "I'm not going to lie, Ms. Rhames, I was bad," she admitted.

But "bad" at this school can mean dying your hair an unauthorized color (like pink or green), wearing dangling earrings, or not having your shoelaces tied—three easy ways to rack up demerits.

Despite receiving mostly A's and B's, she failed the grade for having poor behavior. She was forced to retake every one of the freshman classes she had passed. During her second freshman year she radically improved her behavior and did not get a single detention.  She clearly learned her lesson ... but at what cost?

She is now resentful that she is a sophomore, not a junior, and that her school refuses to place her back in her right grade.  She is so discouraged that she hates going to school, and every morning flirts with the idea of just not showing up.

So I called the principal. He explained that his school's behavior policy was inflexible.  He said his job is to make students college-ready and having tough discipline policies—like retaining kids based on behavior—is a key component of his school's formula for success.  After all, 100 percent of his graduates get accepted into four-year universities. The discipline his students develop at his school, he said, will cause them to get up for that 8 a.m. college course when they'd rather sleep in.

I totally understand raising the stakes for misbehavior, but taking a full year out of a student's life—on top of the many hours she has already spent in detention—seems unjust and ultra-punitive.  Much like prison, my former student was sentenced to wasting a year of her life by retaking classes she had already passed.  And just like prison, the punishment resulted in her coming out angry, feeling victimized, and on the verge of dropping out.

If I could have failed some of my elementary and middle school students purely based on behavior, then I would have retained at least 10 percent of my class every year.  In fact, based on behavior alone, six of the ten boys in my Warrior Boys Book Clubs last year would not have graduated, despite the heroic academic efforts they made to pass my class. 

At the end of our conversation, I told the principal that I may have no choice but to transfer my alum out of his college-ready school to prevent her from dropping out.   

In the process of doing my job, I visit various high schools to learn about the programs they offer.

One high school offers a dual-enrollment opportunity that allows 15- and 16-year-old students to travel to a community college and take courses along side 21- and 22-year olds. As the mother of a soon-to-be-13-year-old daughter, I cringed at the thought of her growing up too fast in such an accelerated program.  

When I expressed this concern to the counselor at my school, he explained that dual enrollment is most valuable because it can save students two years of college tuition. I get it. Saving money is very important, but, again, at what cost? 

Speaking of college courses—I have a former student who was in a gifted middle school program and now attends one of the best high schools in the state of Illinois. Well, he took an AP class in his freshman year and failed it.  At 14, he was just too overwhelmed by multiple school projects to hold it all together.  So now he'll spend the rest of his high school career trying to bring his GPA back up to a "college-ready" level. 

Pardon my ignorance, high school teachers, but I'd really like to know:

  • Is it realistic to expect a kid, even a smart kid, just out of 8th grade to ace a university-level course while also taking multiple honors classes?  
  • Am I correct to fear that we may be squeezing all the joy out of the authentic high school experience by making it feel more like a top ten university for younger and younger students?
  • Are there high schools out there that are not so light-hearted that a teacher can jokingly call a female student a  "whore," and yet not so rigorous that a student is forced to repeat the grade for "failing behavior"?

My intro to high school has been eye-opening, and sometimes crazy. My theory is that hard issues like bullying and college-readiness put a lot of pressure on high school educators to "fix" the problem, but sometimes the end doesn't justify the means.

I also think that high school and middle school teachers need to collaborate a lot more to help students make a smoother transition to secondary school. 

What do you think?  

*minor updates made on 10/23/14
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