I never wanted to go to a Catholic high school, especially after attending public elementary and middle school.
What about my friends?
And I have to wear a uniform, what’s that about?
And I can’t leave campus to go out to lunch?
Plus mandatory religion class?
That first year at Holy Trinity High School in Hicksville, NY, was probably one of the worst years of my life and it had nothing to do with the school itself or even the kids, but rather my refusal to adjust to a decision I had no choice in. My parents wanted to get me away from certain uncouth elements of our town, so they decided to send me to Catholic school (phrasing it like that makes it seem so off-putting).
It was a decision they had the gumption to make and despite my whining misgivings, one they forced me to stick with through freshman year. While I faked sick so many days that year I was in danger of having to repeat, I made it through after I formed a bond with my freshman English teacher. That relationship was tantamount in my returning for my sophomore year, for he enabled me to believe in myself. As a teacher myself, I can now see that that is one of the greatest tools a teacher has – the ability not only to unlock a youth’s potential but also give him the confidence to believe in it as real.
However, how did my values play into my education? Coming from a strong, communicative, hands-on immediate and extended family, I already knew right from wrong and the value of a strong work ethic before I went to high school. Moreover, I knew how important education was to my future, for it had been impressed upon me my entire life. Some, though, do not have this same luxury of a supportive family. Still, parents, whether they’re teaching their children how to be good people or not, expect schools to play an integral role in developing their children’s morals. It is a task I oftentimes find myself charged with; that is, educating my students on how to be better people as well as better learners. Not that that’s a problem since good teacher’s are already doing that throughout any given unit, but let’s be honest: some teachers downright suck.
Recently, Michael McCullough in The Huffington Post wrote a lengthy, empirical piece titled “High School Made You a Better Person” where he categorizes the various ways in which education makes us better humans. He says that, “according to a recent survey, 93 percent of American parents of K-12 students view ‘the development of strong morals and ethics’ as a ‘critical’ or ‘very important’ responsibility of our schools, but only half of the parents surveyed believed the schools were doing an acceptable job at it.”
The problem some parents fail to realize is that values are formed in the home and reinforced in school, not the other way around. Sometimes, even though I’m not a parent, I find myself asking when it became my job to fix someone’s bad parenting? I commented on this and its adverse affect on children in my May 18, 2015 blog “Tomorrow’s Gone: The Student Who Will Not Get It.” To recap, I had a student who blatantly plagiarized an essay and his father completely missed the “teachable moment” (to take a term from Fairfield University Dean of Students Thomas Pellegrino).
I wrote about the father squarely denying his kid plagiarized and once it became clear that he couldn’t weasel his kid out of a zero, his next concern was “if it would affect his child’s ability to transfer to another school because ‘he didn’t want it to go on his permanent record’.” Where are the values there? Where is the lesson? Where is the growth?
In spite of bad parenting, McCullough points out that education itself gives youths the means to better function in society. According to him, “The skills, knowledge, and other cognitive tools that people learn through a formal education—almost certainly prepares our minds for character and virtue in more substantive ways as well.”
Further, he contends that the high school curricula (he uses biology as an example) and more specifically literacy has “character relevant implications.” He writes:
The basic biology and neuroscience to which every high school student should have access before graduating sets the stage for many startling intellectual discoveries, such as the fact that humans are not the only sentient and social beings in world; there are many creatures that feel pain, suffer, and prefer certain fates over others. These facts are morally relevant—how could they not be?—and with proper guidance, learning them can be the occasion for students to thoughtfully contemplate how they wish to treat the other animals with whom we share this planet.
While McCullough somewhat naively underscores that some high school students aren’t ready to make the higher-level connections made in his biology example, he is not incorrect in saying that the implications of a high school education mold our characters in ways we do not even realize at the time. I still remember clowning around in physics class junior year, regularly disrupting the class and probably even more regularly getting kicked out of the class. Although I still can’t make the math work in physics, when I became a teacher I better understood why I was acting out in class – a mixture of not understanding, bad teaching, and general immaturity – and modeled my teaching after my past experience.
As a middle school English teacher, my ultimate goal for my graduating eighth graders is for them to be able to think autonomously and support their opinions through empirical and experiential data. Even more so, I do not want them to be followers. I’ve been a follower in my life, and I can confidently say I’ll never blindly stare at the back of someone’s head again because I’m my own person and can make my own decisions disassociated from the crowd. Part of that sense comes from my education and whom I’ve come into contact with and whom I’ve surrounded myself with over the years.
My grandfather always told me that I should be friends with people who are smarter than me; that way, they could challenge me and push me to always excel. Before high school, I thought his advice was more foolhardy than sage, but as I got older and saw some of my old friends get caught up in some bad choices, I marveled at how right he was. McCullough agrees, writing, “People who are surrounded by highly educated people within their own communities and states are more trusting and tolerant in general than those who are surrounded by less educated people. Thus, education can apparently build trust in two ways: by making you more trusting of your neighbors, and by making your neighbors seem more trustworthy to you.”
Although McCullough’s point is degraded a bit by the reality that some of our students have no positive educational role models in their lives (outside of their teachers) or any educational reinforcement in the home, schools then become not only bastions of learning but also safe havens. At least that’s what they were when I taught in Bridgeport all those years ago.
This isn’t a bow down to the world-shifting teachers blog and it certainly does not touch on the underside of high school where kids bully each other to death; what it is, is an ode to the high school education, one that extends beyond the development of social skills and extends to the real world application of what we learned. While many of us questioned why we had to learn geometry or chemistry or economics or critical writing skills. I’ve come to realize that the answer is two-fold:
- We might actually apply the concepts in real life.
- More importantly, we might have learned something beyond the subject matter, whether that is how to organize ourselves better or how to study more efficiently or even how to be more accepting of others who are different from us.
There are “teachable moments” throughout our past and in the present. Now, we just have to learn from them.
Thanks for teaching me that, Dr. Pellegrino, and thanks to the following for inspiring my drive for learning before, during, and after high school:
- Aunt Pat
- Mr. Chorusey
- Mr. Fennell
- Mr. Boglioli
- Dr. Fiegenson
- Dr. Simon
- Dr. Smith
- All the bad teachers who modeled for me what I would never model as a teacher myself.