A Graduation that Taught Me About Student Resilience

My favorite event of the school year is graduation. But it’s not the graduation you are picturing. I love the graduation ceremony of our local alternative high school, the kind of school at which many teachers scoff.

You know the one: filled with the “problems” and misfits that weren’t smart enough, motivated enough, good enough to cut it with the “good students.” Why do I love this alternative graduation so much? Because it holds deeper meaning for those graduates.

It is filled with students who had been discarded. The caps and gowns are worn by mothers, fathers and grandparents walking the ceremony for their children and grandchildren. They are worn by graduates who battled illnesses and balanced full-time jobs just to get their diplomas.

And the crowd. The auditorium is filled with a diverse team of supporters, from the “People of Wal-Martwhose lifestyle our society mocks online, to philanthropic business owners, to a few former “regular teachers” who still hold pride for their past students.

What the ceremony, above all else, is help me realize how often I, as a teacher, treat high school as the easiest phase of life.

As an adult who has survived the battle of adolescence, I find myself downgrading – sometimes with a touch of smugness – the tensions of struggling teenagers. I think, “You have no idea how lucky you have it in high school! Stop whining and be grateful!”

What if, in downgrading their hardships, I am undermining their resilience rather than cultivating it?

I look across the faces of the two dozen students in my 10th grade English class, and I realize they possess life stories I have never experienced – not even as an adult. Maybe I don’t know what it’s like to be one of them because…

I don’t know what it’s like to be a freshmen and have my mother die from alcoholism.

I don’t know what it’s like to have to give up athletic passions – a decade of love and training –because my next concussion could kill me.

I don’t know what it’s like to be so overwhelmed with anxiety that I can’t get out of bed, to feel so much internal pain that slicing my arms open brings relief.

I don’t know what it’s like to have to hide my sexual orientation from my peers for fear of

constant mockery and humiliation.

I don’t know what it’s like to be fatherless, to be poor, to resort to selling drugs to help my mom pay the electric bill.

I don’t know what it’s like to have a lifelong learning disability, to have struggled over and over and over and over as a system passes me along.

I don’t know what it’s like to bounce from house to house as parents split over drug addictions and prison sentences, to be treated like a kid but forced to parent young siblings.

These are just a handful of lives that walk through my door 2nd period each day. Yet, how

often do I think things – say things – like, “Well, if you had spent your time reading last night you wouldn’t be failing this quiz” or “You’ll keep struggling until you put school first?”

My priorities are not their priorities. The fact that some of these kids even show up to my class – even if it’s a few minutes late – could be worth my gratitude rather than my condescension.

Yet the fact that some of these kids are dealing with hardships I have never imagined is no reason to coddle them. It is no reason to pity them – no reason not to hold them to the standard I know they can attain. They are tough. They are gritty. They are resilient.

I still believe that school can awaken a future beyond their current nightmares. I still honor school as an arena to build social skills, life skills, and learning skills, and that a high school diploma need not be a final step. I still know that what we do as teachers matters – more than ever.

But, I must recognize that rigor and compassion are not dichotomies. Consequences and caring can co-exist. I need less lecturing and more listening, more empathy and less assumption.

If I – if we – respected their lives of resilience rather than criticizing their cries of discontent,

maybe, possibly, the experience of school wouldn’t be so daunting. Maybe, possibly, those caps and gowns would remind us how honorable it is make it to that graduation stage, no matter what the path.

This post originally appeared on EducationPost.org a great site dedicated to improving how people at all levels discuss and improve education.  

 

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Patricia says:

    I too, love these kids and their overwhelming accomplishments. Working with alternative populations has changed everything about who I am as an adult, a teacher and a human being. They are wise beyond their years.

  2. Jesska says:

    You sound like an awesome teacher 🙂

  3. Thanks for this post. It seems to be a common theme for me this week….seeking to understand, and really knowing someone at a deeper level. This is the third “message” i received this week that challenges me to slow down and really get to know the people around me. So many times we think we know someone, when really all we know is the image they reflect…not their true self.

    I’m going to consider this third message as God’s way of trying to get my attention and make room for deeper relationships and greater empathy in my life.

  4. TalkingWithMyHandsDHH says:

    Some students need to hear that they’ll “keep struggling until they put studying first,” because they do choose to play video games or chat online instead of read the assignment, but some, as you say, deserve great respect just finding a way to show up and be physically present. This is why it is so important to get to know our students individually. It is hard not to say general statements when frustrated at overall low grades or hw submissions, but I try to keep my comments student specific and private, because one kid may have spent the night alone in the hospital with a younger sibling waiting to be seen for a fever while her parents worked or another may have been worried about the fact that her mother checked out of rehab early and couldn’t focus while some really did just decide school work wasn’t as important as hanging out with friends.

  5. I love all your posts; they are so refreshing, clear and crisp! I bet you are an amazing teacher 🙂 Stumbling into thought processes such as yours, reminds me that there’s still hope for humanity 🙂 Keep up the good work! 🙂

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