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Pulling My Son Out of High School
Why I don't believe students can thrive in the current education system
Back in February, I posted on Linked that I had decided to pull my son out of his public high school. It was an agonizing decision. Two months later, I can say that it was the right one for us. I thought I’d share a little more about my thoughts on this and what options exist for our kids to thrive during their schooling years.
First, though, did you notice I wrote “thrive during their schooling years” in the first paragraph above? That is the very first time I have used that expression deliberately. I usually say that my vision to help kids “thrive in school.” I no longer think that is possible for the majority of students in the U.S., certainly not in Florida.
We cannot keep good teachers from leaving the profession. This trend has exacerbated since the pandemic, and of those that remain, most are very, very stressed. Some are burned out. Many are looking for jobs. Teacher shortage is a serious problem here. From my work in the schools, I am hearing reports that it is difficult to retain good principals.
High-stakes testing continues to terrorize students and teachers, squeezing the fun and joy out of learning and making everyone so focused on getting good scores on a test that has power over teachers and students lives. School test scores in Florida determine teacher bonuses, school rankings, student placements, and whether students have to be pulled out of their electives to attend remedial classes.
My son loves to learn. He is a fountain of knowledge. He taught himself how to start a YouTube channel, how to draw comics, and how to create cartoon animations. He also desperately needs good teachers to inspire him, challenge him, and encourage him when learning gets hard. And he needs time to think, to create, to move, and to breathe.
He is not unique in these desires. All students need to be met in their “challenge” zone—not bored, not frustrated. All students need time to wonder, play, think, question, learn, and practice what they are learning under the guidance of compassionate, smart, kind teachers.
His public high school was a top-ranked school in our area. And yet, like many high schools, it was a bureaucratic prison focused on making students jump through hoops, check boxes, and work towards some distant future rather then enjoying learning in the present. And, since COVID, the teachers have been more burned out than ever.
My son hated every day in high school. He hated writing pages and pages of sentences in French instead of getting to speak French in class. When I asked the teacher why she doesn’t allow them to speak French, she told me the class is too large to have conversations going on. The English teacher tells her 14 year olds that they can’t turn in any work late and then details all the punishments that await them if they don’t do the work on the giant syllabus she hands them. She quits in December, leaving the class with a substitute teacher. The computer science teacher yells at the whole class when he catches some students cheating and proceeds to “lock” their computers so they can’t work independently. The math teacher is fine but mostly gives worksheets. The Biology teacher doesn’t get the kids excited about biology. She just makes them listen to her pre-recorded lectures at home and take extensive notes. His PE teacher made fun of him the first day and mostly just lets a few kids play basketball at a time. My son sits on the bleachers a lot, doing nothing. When the PE teacher is busy, the whole class sits on the bleachers. Most of the work my son does consists of writing extensive notes in his notebooks, reading and watching educational videos, and taking tests. Since he has block classes, this can go on for almost two hours per class.
I get it. It is really, really hard to be a teacher right now. I tell my son this. Tell him to be a bright light at school. To be positive towards his teachers. To show interest in what he’s learning. He agrees, and the next time there is a lesson on something of interest to him, he tells the teacher after class and asks to learn more about it. “No. I have to cover the curriculum,” she admonishes him. He leaves defeated.
We brainstorm other options. I tell him to try and just wait it out till the following year. Things get worse after winter break. That’s when I decide to pull him out of his school. I don’t think any adult could survive high school, and we are forcing our kids to endure it.
I have spent my adult life working to change public education, and I as of today, I am admitting defeat. I don’t think it’s going to change in my lifetime. Only the rich or lucky have access to creative schools where kids can thrive. It is the exception, not the rule.
My goal now is to help students thrive during their schooling years, and that may mean outside of school, after school, or in alternative models of schooling. My son is doing virtual school at home. The work is still dull and rote, and he takes far too many notes, but the teachers seem to care for him and check on him. He can take breaks to watch birds, get exercise, and eat when he’s hungry. He can work outside, in a comfy chair, or at his desk. He has a lot more autonomy over his learning. I let him choose his schedule, which classes he wants to do on certain days and when he wants to do them. My only rule is that he has to keep up with the recommended class pace charts. He’s excelling and happy.
I am heart-broken that we had to resort to this option though. Equitable access to high-quality education is how our country will thrive in our 21st century information economy. Without it, we are wasting students’ time, minds, energy, attention, and interest. We are training them to hate school and formal learning. How can our democracy survive if the population is poorly educated?
I have no idea what next year holds for us. We are considering full-time virtual school, but even that is problematic as we will have to participate in the state testing system and bring our son to a brick and mortar school multiple times each semester to take these tests. I wonder how another year of not being with his peers will affect him. I worry about all our kids, disengaged from school and each other. It could be so much better. I want it to be so much better. Every single child has such gifts and uniqueness. Add in a good teacher and kaboom! Magic happens. We get to live into our potential. We get to shine.
Why, then, don’t we treat our teachers like rock stars? Like gold—a precious, infinitely valuable resource. They cannot give to students when they themselves are so demoralized. And so, the whole system is crumbling from within.
And our kids are the casualty.