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Welcome to the 'Real World': On Socializing Students for Life Outside the Classroom

A few years ago, a former student called me from her dorm room at a private upstate college, to which she'd been granted an impressive scholarship, and recounted the details of a conflict she was having with one of the girls on her freshman floor.

"She's giving me a 'look,'" my student said. "I might have to jump her."

I was aghast. "You can't jump someone because she gave you a look!" I told her. "This is a university. You have a problem with someone on your floor, you go talk to your RA. Do you want to lose your scholarship?"

She was confused. "But then she's going to keep looking at me!"

"So what if she does? This isn't some street-fight. You're two young adults, living in a dorm, and you resolve this conflict without physical contact."

Looking back, I see why she was confused. A bright, scrappy, feisty young girl growing up in a particularly tough area of the Bronx, she had no doubt seen and perhaps been party to many conflicts that were resolved in the way she was suggesting. In this entirely new context, she had no sense of what the "rules" were. I was probably more derisive with her than I should have been; in my shock at her desire to start a fistfight in the hallways of a prestigious college, I failed to grasp, at the time, her simple need to protect herself in an unfamiliar situation.

I realized that, as a school, we'd missed something crucial: That we needed to better prepare students for the social aspects of college--interacting with roommates and floor-mates, approaching professors about assignments, working within the context of student groups and clubs--as well as the academic ones. I worried we all had been so caught up with preparing students for SATs, AP exams, Regents exams, etc., that we had not anticipated what the kids would do once they actually arrived at these institutions of higher education.

Ultimately I think the work of fostering good social behavior is equally important to endowing kids with good academic skills, and that schools--for better of worse--are responsible for both. A teacher with whom I frequently collaborate bemoaned the fact that there is seemingly no recognition of the importance of this work, or the fact that it is a significant part of a conscientious teacher's job--at least in the type of school where we work. My teacher friend mentioned a very low-functioning student with an IEP, "Shelly," who came to school painfully shy and barely literate; at the end of the year, Shelly had given a speech in front of the class, which received resounding applause from her peers. This was a huge accomplishment for Shelly, and for Shelly's teacher, who endowed this special needs student not only with a better toolbox for verbal expression, but also with confidence and an improved ability to interact with her peers.

But the school's ratings are never based on socialization of students like Shelly, or even of students like my aforementioned upstate college attendee, despite the fact that such skills are crucial to all successful professional, academic, and personal interactions. Instead, they're based purely on test scores and credit accumulation leading to graduation rates. I'm not entirely sure what metric could exist for such gains, but in an era where the responsibilities of schools and teachers in children's lives seem to be ever-expanding, it seems to miss the big picture to overlook this important aspect of the job.

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