School Is About More Than Training Kids to Be Adults

What teachers risk when they focus only on ensuring adolescents are ready for college and their careers

Claro Cortes / Reuters

Years ago, as a junior-varsity baseball coach, I was once stunned by a player who had to remind me that he and his teammates—the people I was training—were only kids. I had just finished giving a pretty typical speech to my team, telling them that, over five years, I had 16 players who went on to play in college or professionally. And I gravely explained to all these teenage boys every aspect they needed to improve if they were going to join them at "the next level." When I was done, one of them said softly, "Coach, we’re only 15." They were just four years out of elementary school, and they wanted to play the game of baseball. They wanted to improve, of course, but one step at a time. A gifted minority of them took my lessons seriously, and they worked out on their own time; a few of them are still playing professionally today. But for most of them, they just wanted to be good JV players—and all this talk of college was making practice a grind. A few of them wanted to quit.

This year, I’m re-experiencing this revelation as a high school English teacher. I spent most of my career working with Advanced-Placement seniors who generally couldn’t wait for the next level; now, I’m teaching 10th- and 11th-grade students in "college-prep" classes, courses that are much less rigorous than the AP offerings, and I find myself blushing at my naive expectations. Most of them want to read and write as well as they're expected to at their grade level, but I see many of them overwhelmed by too much talk about careers—to the point that some of them want to quit. What’s worse, they don’t have the same option to fail as the baseball players did: If they want a paycheck, they’re going to have to play at the next level. Moreover, many of them lack the superstar role models that athletes get to watch every day. In fact, it seems to me that many high school students don’t even like, much less admire, the adult world.

Before today’s educational leaders, business owners, or even everyday taxpayers get too emotionally or financially invested in programs to help students prepare for the working world—ensuring they are, to borrow a favorite school-reform buzzword, "college- and career-ready"—maybe they should realize (or remember) that most kids just want to be kids while they still can. And if the policymakers can’t accept this reality, then maybe they should look for ways make adulthood more appealing or adolescence less luxurious. Until these fundamental motivational issues are solved, none of the country’s "college- and career-readiness" programs will reach their full potential.

Let me be clear—as an English teacher, father, and taxpayer, I’m often heartened by ideas and reforms that encourage schools to prepare their students for today’s working world. As a teacher, I’m excited by my school’s developing STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) program, and I love my department’s required career-research project. I base my instruction around the new Common Core standards. In fact, I just returned from an inspiring conference about another favorite buzzword: "Career Technical Education," or CTE. As a father, I want my daughter to be absolutely ready for college and a career; and as a taxpayer, I want the American workforce to be world’s best.

However, I can’t deny my direct observations. Most of the kids I teach love a good novel that’s written for, or at least about, high school students. But they drag their feet through their aforementioned career project, and they appear utterly bored when the counselors come to talk to them about so-called "college pathways."

Recently, several of my students were interviewed over Skype by a news producer who wanted their thoughts on a project I assigned in which they studied NPR’s Serial podcast instead of Shakespeare. I asked the producer if my students, in exchange, could ask her questions about her career, and she was happy to oblige. When it came time to talk, however, the kids simply weren’t very interested. I nudged my students—like an awkward matchmaker—toward asking about internship possibilities down the road, to no avail. Another adult in the room was visibly stunned by how cool and casual, disinterested even, the students appeared about being on the news, especially when compared with their excitement about each other’s Pinterest boards.

Similarly, anyone who thinks technology lessons are inherently interesting to every student might be disappointed. Just because the students love using their devices to connect with friends—sometimes to the point of obsession—this does not necessarily mean they want adults involved in their circuitry. In fact, maybe it’s just the opposite. Earlier this year, the staff at my school giddily advertised a "Bring Your Own Device Day" to help bridge the gap between modern technology and traditional education, but only about five of my 150 students brought devices they otherwise wouldn’t have. One of the teens explained to me, "We like using our phones and laptops for games and talking to each other, but we don’t really want use them for school."

And last month, when my school created a Twitter account and encouraged the entire staff to do the same, I was surprised to discover that a great majority of my students don't even tweet. Many of them shrugged off my double-take with complete disinterest. They told me they still like Facebook and love Snapchat and really like playing interactive games like Clash of Clans. When I asked them why they didn’t like Twitter, they responded as if they were patient teachers repeating a lesson for me: They like to play games and send social messages to each other, plain and simple. Twitter is not the medium for that. Twitter, apparently, is for adults.

An article in Fast Company summarizes why experts think adolescents have been moving away from established social-media platforms over the last few years and showing a preference for newer apps such as Snapchat: "The older social media sites stopped being cool when parents joined them." A recent nationwide survey by NuVoodoo shows that while most people, regardless of age, use Facebook, teens say Instagram—which is used by just 16 percent of middle-aged adults—is their "most important" social network. My students for their part prefer to communicate through Snapchat, a photo-messaging application in which the messages "disappear" within ten seconds of being viewed. According to researchers at the University of Washington, most Snapchat users—59 percent—primarily rely on the app to share funny content like "photos of stupid faces." Not surprisingly, Snapchat is used by just 4 percent of middle-aged adults.

I didn't totally believe my students’ apparent disinterest in Twitter until I encouraged them to send tweets to other high schoolers about their theories on the Serial podcast. I was startled by how it was almost painful for them to collaborate about something school-related with students from other campuses, even when using social media. The hashtag #TeensOnSerial has, as of now, only been used 29 times—and, ironically, 20 of those tweets came from adults. (And it’s worth noting that the few students I do "follow" on Twitter are not sharing important information or following potential employers or university accounts; instead, their posts have almost exclusively consisted of silly re-tweets from celebrity accounts, celebrations of "crazy" parties, or awkward-to-read bursts of teenage drama.)

Why is it they're so nonplussed about their own college and career readiness? Perhaps it’s their premature prefrontal cortices, their inability to judge long-term risk and rewards. Maybe they're over-medicated or too distracted by social networks. There are lots of adults with lots of theories. But maybe it’s simpler than all of that—maybe they’re not going to get on board with anything if the adult working world is the unfortunate destination.

I started wondering: What about adulthood do I think should inherently appeal to teenagers? My students probably go on better vacations than I do, they eat food that’s just as yummy, and they certainly sleep longer. Adults, meanwhile, are washing clothes, cooking good meals, and driving their kids to practice.

So I asked them for their thoughts. Without telling them why, I gave them anonymous (though admittedly unscientific) surveys. I asked the 40 students, "Who usually has a better day— you or your parents?" Seventy percent of them said themselves. I then asked each of the 40 kids to list the first five real-life stories, from the news or their own lives, that came to their mind involving adults; I then asked them to list a couple adjectives for each of those five responses. The top answers consisted of "Ebola" (mentioned 15 times), "Ferguson riots" (14), "ISIS beheadings" (6), "Ray Rice" (5), "Charlie Hebdo" (3), "Robin Williams’ suicide" (3), and "deflated footballs" (3). The only positive stories that came up (14 total out of 200 answers) involved the Super Bowl and the World Cup—which are really just glorified games—and, of course, the Serial podcast, which is actually a nonfiction story about high school students. The top adjectives were "sad," "upsetting," "scary," "interesting," "stupid," "frightening," and "terrifying." (There were also five mentions of "fun" for the sporting events.) Finally, nearly two-thirds of the students reported that they would rather have a "fun job for their favorite team or band" for $30,000-a-year salary than a "job that involves analysis and synthesis" for $50,000 a year.

What does this mean for me as a teacher? For starters, I have to stop basing some of my lessons on the assumption that they are consciously interested in joining the workforce, or paying thousands of dollars to study for another four or so years, or having opportunities to argue on Twitter.

My students actually like to read; many of them do so voluntarily for pleasure. I should probably focus on tapping into that affinity. They like The Hunger Games, they like Of Mice and Men, and they like Serial. They want to play games and talk with their friends, and they want to learn more about people and lessons applicable to their everyday lives. That's how I can engage them.

They generally don’t care much about talking in a "professional register" or citing their papers according to the MLA style. That doesn't mean I'm not going to teach those things; I'm just going to be more honest with my approach. I'm not going to pretend these lessons are intrinsically interesting to them, and I'm not going to think that infusing social media into my lesson plans is going to change anything in that regard.

What does all this mean for adults in general? Perhaps they have to give teenagers some more significant reasons to want to become part of adult society. If professionals really do have better lives than teenagers, then maybe they should—as some kids say—"inform their own faces." A majority of U.S. workers are "unengaged with their jobs," and 17 percent are "actively disengaged." And younger workers are the least engaged.

On the other hand, if demonstrating the inherent joy of adulthood isn’t the answer, maybe communities across the U.S.—from the small towns to the national stage—can give teens a little less and make them earn a little more. In exploring these issues, I recently consulted a former student of mine—a student who, as a teen, always struck me as more mature than his peers, in part because of his exceptional knack for interacting with adults. I asked him what he thought made him different from most of his friends in high school. He said that while he was lucky to grow up surrounded by happy adult role models, he was also denied access to the privileges of adulthood until he had earned it: "I had five aunts and five uncles, and they were all involved in so many cool things, and all of them enjoyed life. We’d have these big family gatherings, and my sister and I—even in high school—just couldn’t wait to get off the kids’ table."

Perhaps the JV baseball player who was "only 15" wanted to stay at the "kids’ table" instead. For typical teens like him, joining the adult table where there are adult conversations is equivalent to eating a dish of broccoli when they’d rather be eating pizza and Snapchatting "stupid faces" to their friends. Spending millions of dollars to essentially feed them broccoli pizza ignores some fundamental elements of teen motivation. They’re still not going to like the broccoli, they’re going to resent whoever put it on their pizza, and they might just leave and find another kids’ table; most likely, they’ll just pick off the broccoli and enjoy the expensive pizza without it. In a culture in which "College- and Career-Readiness Standards" are imposed as early as kindergarten, maybe schools should step back and realize that most kids want adults to butt out of their pizza party. And if schools want to step up to the plate rather than away from it, perhaps they should hold off on serving dessert until the kids eat their greens.