Intrigued by my campaign message to “Empower Students,” another District student stopped by to talk with me. She preferred I did not use her real name for fear of retaliation so, for purposes of this article, we’ll call her “Cassie.”
I explained that my mission was to instill a change in our schools’ culture to center on students’ needs—so they can lead balanced lives beyond academics. I explained that schools exist for students but that many of the decisions, policies, curriculum and structure are not necessarily designed around students’ best interests. It is critical, I said, that administrators see the world from student’s’ perspectives.
As our conversation progressed, Cassie grew more comfortable and began revealing to me some of her inner feelings. “School is like a prison,” she said. “We are passed from one authority to the next with eight-minute breaks in between…We are overloaded with information, overwhelmed with homework, academics… No one cares what we think…”
I was rather taken by her use of the term “prison” to liken her school experience. Confidently, she went on to say that the system “is based on the industrial revolution, on a factory model…enslaving workers…” “We feel trapped, enslaved, imprisoned.” She sounded hopeless. No one was listening—in her words “Does anyone care?”
I did not hesitate. “I do!” I said, “and that is why a I’m running!”
For me, it was an epiphany moment. Cassie went further to explain the other aspects of her school experience. She mentioned that some of her classes are as large as 4o or more students, allowing for limited class discussion or interaction with teachers or peers. Classes are 90-minutes long with no breaks. Then, when the bell rings, it’s an 8-minute mad rush to pack up and get to the next class—sometimes at the opposite end of campus. There’s no time to speak with peers or approach teachers with questions. There’s little time to grab a drink or snack. Sometimes, there’s no time for a bathroom break. Run, run, run—or risk a tardy mark or the ire of the teacher chastising you for being late. “When we finally have our 30-minute lunch break, the lines are so long that we barely have time to eat. In many classes, teachers don’t allow food in class…” Even in the “real world,” she said, people get more freedom and flexibility. “They have meetings, discussions, brainstorming, coffee breaks, and a 1-hour lunch.“
And the ‘running’ doesn’t stop when the school day ends. Many of these young adults rush to their extracurricular activities. Then it’s homework and studying for exams for stretches of 3 and 5+ hours a night. Many times, they work through dinner. It’s a constant on-the-go. There’s little time to relax or gather with friends. Days are stressful and sleep deprived. It’s a vicious cycle that starts all over each weekday and often extends through the weekend.
Cassie’s plight is not isolated. Her sentiments are shared by many other students and affirmed by our Districts’ Healthy Kids Report. Some of the numbers are alarming:
Jonathan Dalton, a psychologist with the Center for Anxiety and Behavioral Change in Maryland has it right: “For the first time, teens are more stressed than their parents are. It used to be ‘Enjoy your childhood. When you get to be an adult, you have mortgages and jobs.’ And now, for the first time ever, it’s flipped.”
I was so very taken by this student’s insight and her “prison” and “factory” comparisons that I realized that our kids are begging us to pay attention—they’re suffocating and begging for air. Cassie’s concerns are real. Her anxiety and stress are real. What isn’t real is the veneer of the “great” education system painted by our District’s administrators and officials. It is imperative that we question the purpose of schools—to prepare our young adults for jobs, relationships, and life in general. This “system” is only killing our kids’ spirit.
It’s time to shift the school factory model to an experiential model
Schools exist for students—not for the administrators or adults that employ them. To add a business perspective—our students are the “customer” to be “serviced” and everything we do must center around enriching their experience. Education aims to prepare students to deal with challenges that lie ahead in life—and not just academically. To be effective, we must engage them to participate in the process, to empower them, to take ownership of their education. Students must be made a part of the solution. Class sizes must be reduced to facilitate stimulating discussion. Beyond just data and information, discussion makes it possible to learn how to apply information to be meaningful and applicable in the real world. Smaller groups enables students to connect with one another intellectually, emotionally, and socially.
Think of it: If schools were modeled after a workday at Google or Facebook, students would have far more motivation and would develop an entrepreneurial spirit to discover themselves, to connect and collaborate with their community, and to make a difference in others.
We must look beyond the antiquated system we’ve built around our students. We live in an experiential society and must therefore transform the student experience to be inspired, empowered, and motivated. It’s time for fresh ideas.
Please, help me set the tone to start shifting our school culture. We owe it to our children.