On a quest to hear from young people and understand our Christian schools’ strengths and weaknesses, I recently conducted a survey of youth in Mennonite high schools, asking them what they would say to their teachers confidentially if they could. I asked, “What would make your high school a better place? What do you enjoy, appreciate, or dread when you enter your school’s doors? What do you wish your teachers knew?”
In response, I got a lot of groans (because another assignment? really?), a few thank you notes, and a stunning collection of honesty and insight. Eight schools from various states participated in the survey, with over 185 students submitting their anonymous responses to me.
What struck me most was their agreement.
They knew I was interviewing them in order to write this post. With their permission, I will share with you what they said.
Dear High School Teachers,
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to share our thoughts and feelings. We have a lot to say. Right at the onset, we need you to know…
We appreciate you. We get the feeling that there’s a ton of work in being a teacher, and we know we don’t make it easy. Thank you for investing so heavily in our lives, and not giving up.
We love to connect: with our schoolwork, with each other, and with you. We love your stories. (Bunny trails are the best.) We want to know who you are. We love when you get personal and tell us about your life: what you care about, what you think, and what the world was like when you were a teen. You give us hope and inspiration.
We want to know that you care about us—not just our performance and your lesson plan. But please don’t be our parent or counselor. We get squeamish when we feel emotional pressure to self-disclose, especially one-on-one or cross gender. (One-on-one is cool. Pressure is not cool.) We don’t like being analyzed and boxed in. But we love your praise, your time, your smiley faces and kind words on our papers. We love when you play recess with us, let us sign up to eat lunch with the principal, take time to get to know us individually, or invite us to hang out with you and each other outside of school hours. We can tell when you care. When you pray out loud for us, our world lights up.
We need chill time. It’s not because we’re lazy. It’s because to us, relationships are everything. Believe it or not, it’s pretty stressful being a high schooler. We juggle school, home life, personal obligations, youth group, church, and sometimes paid employment. We do an impressive job at all this, but we’re tired and stressed and pressured, and the place where we relax is in downtime with other people.
We are massively social. A few extra minutes between classes helps a lot. Catching up on our day. Talking about what we really care about. Building friendships. Taking a breath.
As much as possible, can we keep the bulk of the learning at school? We wear more hats than just your students, and we like to spend time with our families. Give us quiet study halls to get most of our work done. Compare notes with other teachers on the homework assignments for the week, so it doesn’t all hit at once.
We love autonomy. We want to know you’re in charge, but within that framework, let us make as many choices as is reasonable. Usually, we act the way you treat us. Please see us as adults as often you can. It means a lot when you respect us as people, allow us our opinions, and let us make mistakes. We’re still growing and finding our way. We need your continual kindness, your endless patience, and most of all—a little bit of your trust.
We don’t like peer pressure. Even when we create it. Cliques, labelling, judging, attitudes, exclusion, and bullying are incredibly hurtful to us. We don’t know how to break out of these systems. We feel like school is stacked for certain kids. It hurts to be less smart than others. Or less talkative. Or good-looking. Or popular. Or talented. Deep down, both sides want to cross those barriers. We’d like to see the fast learners and the slow being friends, cool and uncool labels done away with, guys and girls able to interact without drawing snide remarks, upper grades spending more time with lower, high school classes mixing up to learn from each other. We wish high school was kinder. In our dreams, we build a team where every player is connected and safe.
Can you show us how this is done?
We crave interactive, hands on, engrossing, immersive learning. We don’t want to ask too much, but lecture does not cut it for us. We want to get messy. We want science experiments, hands-on learning, video clips, review games, mini field trips, study partners, artifacts, photographs, debate, visual demonstrations, Q&A, group projects, and a spark of fun. We love discussion times, especially about things that really matter. We don’t do that well with sitting at our desks memorizing facts. We have diverse learning styles, and we need variety. We want to be heavily involved in our own education.
We like having fun. (Oops, we already said that.) Sure, we want to be treated with the respect of adults, but we’re still teens, and we need breaks. Please lighten it up sometimes. Let us laugh. Bring unexpected Tootsie Rolls to history class, or donuts to morning chapel. Sing with us, just for anyhow, or read a story aloud. Start a tradition. Pull a prank. Plan a game, a special day, a work project, some fresh air. Squeeze in an extra recess. Do something impromptu (besides a pop quiz). Pay attention to where we’re at developmentally. As a rule of thumb, we eleventh and twelfth graders are the ones hungry to engage our minds, make it count, make this matter. We ninth and tenth graders just want relational connection, spaces, joy.
At the same time, we are eager to learn for real. We want you to keep order, and command our attention. We love when you are skilled with and invested in your subjects. (Yes, we can tell.) We don’t want to cram for a test and forget it all the next week. We want to know why you gave us the grade you did, and how we could do better next round. Sometimes you talk over our heads, apologizing for explaining something so basic because of course everyone gets this… but some of us don’t. We get scared, and we tuck our heads down when we should put our hands up. Slow down, gentle up, teach us. Don’t shoot us down when we’re off track. Please. Help. Us. Learn.
We want to diversify. By high school, we care about gaining the life skills that will help us later. We’d like to be offered electives in fields of interest that we don’t all share: advanced music, art, foreign language, Bible study, mechanics, woodworking, creative writing, blueprint reading, digital design, computer technology, applied science, individualized research. We’re trying to prepare for the rest of our lives—not just for college, but for the practical vocations we will pursue and the lives we’ll lead in the real world. Is this possible? Could it work?
Speaking of diversity, please don’t play favorites. We students can sniff out partiality miles away. We notice if some of us can get away with more than others can—and none of us like it.
All of us are in transition and upheaval. Some are in great pain. Don’t assume we are fine just because we look like it. Whether or not you see it, some students in our school are afraid of you, some resent you, some are battling depression, some face silent bullying, and some have home lives not worth speaking of. Some of us are tired of trying and failing. Some have a lot to say, and nowhere to say it. Those who are quietest have a lot going on inside; those who are struggling academically may be working hardest; those who are labelled as ‘different’ are struggling most. We worry that you don’t know this, and we worry about each other.
We’re not all okay.
Don’t be afraid to ask us how we’re doing. We appreciate prayer groups and split chapels, spaces where a small group of students can hopefully get honest with each other and a trusted mentor.
We are very sensitive to public attention. We care how we look. We don’t like being embarrassed. We remember awkward moments forever. Looking dumb is the worst—maybe second only to stumbling over unwritten rules that everyone else somehow knows about. We want to know that we’re safe here. As often as you can, please avoid singling us out: sharing our grades publicly, calling on us unexpectedly, making a joke of our mistakes, holding private-not-so-private talks, targeting one student as an example for good or bad, making us sing or display or explain ourselves too vulnerably, and stressing ultimate performance when we’re not all created equal.
By the way, we all have strong feelings about music and sports. Some of us can’t get enough, and some had way too much by second grade already. So yeah, have fun figuring that out. But meanwhile, you might just make a note of it. We don’t like doing highly public things we’re not good at.
Thank you for listening to what we have to say. We’re grateful for the chance to learn with you. You have a lot of power in our lives. Encourage us—over and over and over—and we won’t forget you.
Thanks for everything,
Though I collated and interpreted what students said, I did not add my personal ideas and suggestions. This is from them.
Big thanks to the students of Faith Mennonite High School (PA), Plainview Christian School (OH), Faith Builders Christian School (PA), Legacy Christian School (OH), Pilgrim Christian School (KS), Anchor Christian School (PA), Zion Christian School (OH), and Valley View Christian School (PA) for their honest contributions and remarkable insights. I am grateful.—Shari Zook
CONTRIBUTOR: Shari Zook