Change happens

I subscribe to Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations, which I often don’t have time to read. But this morning’s missive on Transitions spoke to me.

The word change normally refers to new beginnings. But the mystery of transformation more often happens not when something new beginsbut when something old falls apart. The pain and chaos of something old falling apart invite the soul to listen at a deeper level, and sometimes force the soul to go to a new place. Most of us would never go to new places in any other way…

Transformation always includes a disconcerting reorientation. It can either help people to find new meaning or it can cause people to close down and slowly turn bitter. The difference is determined precisely by the quality of our inner life, our practices, and our spirituality. Change happens, but transformation is always a process of letting go, and living in the confusing, shadowy, transitional space for a while. Eventually, we are spit up on a new and unexpected shore…

After two decades teaching in a public school, I feel the changes that students experience profoundly. April is huge month of transition. Just as flowers burst into bloom outdoors, seniors come alive again.

This Class of 2023 has already faced “confusing, shadowy, transitional space” that started at the end of their 9th grade year and extended into their entire 10th grade year. “Change happens when something old falls apart…” Well, their worlds fell apart. Now we have the greatest teen mental health crisis we’ve ever faced. But I’m not going there.

We had a job fair at school this week. It was a great real-life connection to what we were doing in class – researching career options, creating resumes and cover letters, and preparing for “job interviews.” I thought students would be enthusiastic about the job fair. Instead, a collective meh! greeted the announcement.

I know that many are finalizing their college choice by May 1st (tomorrow is Decision Day). Many are already working or have summer jobs lined up. Once we got downstairs to the fair, I was glad to see that students went from table to table and talked to the recruiters. Afterwards I realized they were just collecting free pens, candy, lanyards, and key chains. Meh!

With just one month left of school, I feel the tide rising and lifting all ships. Senior Assassin and Promposals are in the air. In English class, I hear excited chatter as girls show each other their prom dresses. “Ms. Sullivan, which color do you like?” D. showed me a muted pink suit he’s about to purchase. Kids in team jerseys announce that varsity sports are moving to season’s end. Chronically absent students are returning and asking what assignments they’re missing. 

The rhythm of a school year forces change, ready or not. For seniors in the home stretch, a feeling of anticipation and hope fills the air. That collective meh! will soon turn into rah! as they reach the end of their K-12 education.

I can’t wait to hear which dress color A. has selected for prom, what choice P. has made about college, and if Z. will change jobs.

The quiet drop outs

It’s not shocking that the December 30th deadline for confirming my National Board Certification candidacy has forced me to ask the right questions. If I’m co-teaching two sections of Honors English 12 and teaching solo two others, which class would be best to film for Component 3? Or should I use my 7th period ELD Seminar class that has only 10 students? Should I certify in English Language Arts (the subject I’m actually teaching) or English as a New Language (my career specialty)?

It turns out that I have to scrap the videos I’ve recorded, delete the written commentary, and wait until next semester when my new schedule includes 51% English Learners in a sheltered Honors English 12 class. Teachers have to pivot all the time. Good thing I checked before spending the rest of the school year completing unscorable components. One thing, however, has come out of this frustrating process that I cannot dismiss.

The data I’ve collected on my students may not be valid for National Board Certification, but it deserves some written commentary. So here it is.

Out of the 106 students in my four classes, 30 have missed 20 or more days of instruction or they have stopped coming to school altogether. Some have withdrawn from school officially, some have switched to “credit recovery” classes online, and one had a baby. Many English Learners are working full time and miss class because they’re exhausted. But where are the other students? Why aren’t they coming to school?

Over and over again, I try to contact the students on my roster. I call home, I send an email to the counselors, administrators follow up, kids get referred to the Wellness Center, I involve the Parent Community Coordinator or the Bilingual Counselor. Some will show up once a week or two. My school and school district have wonderful resources, fully employed. But why aren’t these students coming to class?

Teachers and school staff understand why. These students are suffering from enormous mental health challenges as a result of the pandemic. It’s not just a disengagement. This year’s seniors spent the spring semester of their freshman year and 90% of their 10th grade year online. These are crucial formative years, where adolescents naturally break away from their families and seek peer friendships as they develop independent identities.

Schools have made incredible adjustments to accommodate student needs. But we must keep asking the right questions. How can we better address the experiences of high school students whose natural growth process was stunted? What new programs or new staffing can we put in place to support the whole child? School is not just for academics. We’ve known that for a long time. Why has it taken a public health crisis to begin to address this?

During the pandemic, articles about the “great resignation” began to appear. Workers seeking better jobs jumped at new employment opportunities. Now we hear about “quiet quitting,” where workers are opting out of any extra tasks outside their primary job duties (in the teachers’ union, we call this Work to Rule). High school students are paralleling what companies and employers are seeing in the workforce.

Seniors are doing the absolute bare minimum to meet graduation requirements. It’s a huge problem in the classroom when 30% of the students missed the intro lesson and we can not make progress. I have to completely re-think discussion groups or project-based assignments that require peer collaboration. What social-emotional skills are they also missing?

It’s a quiet drop out crisis. The soft skills that today’s teens will need to be successful members of society are not developing normally. We can help them if every school, every district, and every state begins to ask the right questions, gather data, and reflect on possible solutions. It would help to have a deadline.