It’s been a busy back-to-school season for me.
I’ve been out of the classroom for a year now, and though I’m beginning my tenth year teaching high school, I feel like a newbie again.
During teacher pre-service days, I felt confident and oddly calm about the new group of teenagers I was about to be entrusted with. Then I met them on the first day. I’m only teaching two classes this year, one French class and one English class. As I stood in front of my 60 new students, telling them about expectations and trying to appear approachable yet serious, I remembered what it’s like to stand in front of a roomful of teenagers.
The “I’m too cool for school” vibe was strong with these kids. I came home exhausted. Jaded. Bummed about the ongoing battle of wills I could foresee for the next nine months. Teaching high school is rough sometimes, in case you didn’t know.
Since the focus of our pre-service had been, at least partially, on building relationships and on understanding how teenage brains work, and since the past year of my life has helped me rediscover my passion for writing, I thought I should turn to the written word for some grounding. It worked.
The next day, I returned to the class with a script and a focus and a renewed positivity. Here is what I shared with them.
An open letter to my new high school students.
What I Believe.
About you, my students.
I believe you are capable of great things, but maybe you have a few things in your way. Maybe you’re worried about what others think of you. That’s fair. We all worry about that. Maybe you assume you’re no good at this subject, so you’ll just joke your way out of it. Also fair. No one wants to fail or feel mediocre. Humor feels better.
Maybe English isn’t your first language. Perhaps you have a learning disability that makes it hard to string letters and words together. Those are really hard hurdles to get over. But not impossible. Maybe you have things going on at home that make it really, really hard to concentrate here in your English class. I get you. I’ve been there. But hear this: you can get through it.
I see you. And I believe in you.
I believe that, despite whatever roadblocks you have in your way, you are going to succeed. I believe that this year, you will become a better writer. A better test taker. A better reader. A better human.
How can I know this? Why is this my belief? It’s actually pretty simple. I choose to expect the best and understand the worst. Understand does not equal excuse, by the way. I will not excuse poor behavior or disrespect or laziness. I will understand if your assignment isn’t done because your electricity went off last night because your single mom who works two jobs forgot to pay the bill on time. Been there. I will not excuse your choice to play video games or space out on Youtube rather than finish your homework. See the difference? I believe that you will make the best choices for yourself, your education, and your future. But when you don’t? I will call you out on it. I will expect better next time. And you WILL do better. If you don’t? Well, that’s on you.
You are in charge here, whether you know it or not. You are in charge of your success in this class. You can joke. You can roll your eyes. You can make excuses. You can believe the lie that you’re just not good at this subject. At the end of the day, though, here’s what will happen. I will stress over it, and I will spend hours thinking of ways to help you, reworking assignments to accommodate you, jotting down notes and feedback that you probably won’t read. I will send emails to parents and place phone calls and have awkward parent/teacher conferences, and then, at the end of the day…the ball is in your court. You decide. You have control. You choose if you will move on and do better, or if you will stay the same.
…I will move on. To a new semester. To a new set of students. To a new school year. I have already proven myself. I’ve graduated a few times – high school, college, graduate school…I beat the odds of being a first generation college student from a single parent household that, despite my mom’s two jobs, had to rely on food stamps at times. I did the work, accrued the student loans (which I’m still paying off, by the way), wrote all the essays, earned all those diplomas. I don’t need your grade. You do. The grade you receive in this class will belong to you, not to me. At the end of the year, I will know that I have done all I can to help you achieve success.
Will you be able to say the same?
Will the letter make a difference?
*Insert shrug emoji*
At the very least, it worked for me. It allowed me to speak from my heart with honestly and openness, to model the safe space I hope I can provide for them. It let me convey my expectations in a way that offers a mix of grace and gravity. Some heard me, I’m sure. Some rolled their eyes and dismissed. That’s par for the course when teaching high school, after all.
They all wrote a response to me, which I have not read yet. I am nervous but excited to see what they have to say. Never have I scripted a lesson for my class, but I’m happy with the choice to start my year off with this one.