Our Collective Failure: An Open Letter to the Graduating Class of 2014

To the high school graduation class of 2014:

Congratulations!  As you sit here today, proud as you are, you are about to embark on a new journey.  It is an exciting time and also a scary one.  You will leave the friendly confines of your own home and will venture out into a world of uncertainty, whether that world ends up being the work force, college, or the military.  You have worked hard and have overcome many obstacles in your life to get here today and you could not have done it alone.  There were many people who helped get you here today including your friends, family, and local community leaders.

One group of people who didn't help get you here today was your teachers.

I'm just being honest.  Despite what you have been told, despite what impact you think a particular teacher had on your life, he or she didn't prepare you for the world you're about to enter.  You won't realize this now, but it's the truth:  Your teachers intentionally kept you from reaching your potential.  Veteran teachers, new teachers, teachers in urban settings, teachers in private schools, it doesn't matter.  We all did what we could to ensure that you didn't succeed.  Although today might feel like a success when you walk across that stage, you should know that after today it will become apparent that we as teachers have succeeded by failing each and every one of you.

Why would we do that, you ask?

The truth of the matter is many of us didn't realize we were doing it.  We entered the profession knowing that we as teachers would not receive either the respect or the salary that we deserved.  Inevitably, we knew that our own friends and family would be saying how lucky we were to have summers off and long vacations, not realizing that the majority of that time is used to improve our practice.  In teacher education programs, we were given simple, by-the-book techniques to succeed.  We learned the very basics regarding pedagogy, classroom management, and special education.  Popular culture told us that even if we were in a rough situation, with a good heart and commitment we could reach even the most troubled young men and women.

We were lied to.

What we weren't told could fill a mansion.  We weren't told about the state of American education today.  About how each school was under incredible pressure to perform for fear of being closed.  About how each administration narrowed the curriculum to improve test scores.  About how each veteran teacher became more and more befuddled with all these additional expectations.  About how each student, despite his or her background, socio-economic status, primary language, immigration status, and developmental level, was expected to reach an arbitrary baseline of competency.  About how we, as new teachers, were expected to balance all these issues, all while learning a new curriculum, classroom management, extracurricular commitments, communicating with parents, and ensuring that our students felt safe and secure in our classrooms.

We failed.  Spectacularly.

It wasn't even close.  We as teachers failed you big time.  We did it because we didn't know any better.  We did it because we were scared.  Scared to disappoint our colleagues and department chairs.  Scared to disappoint our principals.  Scared to disappoint parents.  Scared to disappoint our students.  Scared to disappoint ourselves.  And most importantly, scared to lose our jobs.

We failed you because we didn't speak up.

And because we didn't speak up, we have ruined each and every one of you in some way or another.  Our most egregious error is plainly visible today.  Look behind you.  Go on, take a minute to do so.  See that gap between your peers and your parents?  That gap is missing 20% of your graduating class.  They started with you freshman year and are no longer here.  One out of five of you nationwide doesn't get to where you are today.  Many of you have a friend, or at least a vague recollection, of somebody who started with you on day one of freshman year.  Chances are, you don't know where that person is today.  Neither to his or her teachers.  That person is someone that we helped fail.

There is a multitude of ways that we helped that person fail.  Maybe that person came from a rough background and didn't sleep during the night.  However, in our class we made sure they didn't sleep because, well, that was disrespectful.  Maybe that person didn't eat breakfast each morning.  However, in our class we made sure they didn't eat because that was against the rules.  Maybe that person was really struggling in another class and needed occasional time in our class to do homework.  However, in our class we only did work with the topic at hand so we confiscated the work.  Maybe, just maybe, that person saw what I am here telling you today:  That school and the teachers are intentionally failing you.

We've also failed you in other, oftentimes more subtle ways.  We've killed your strengths as human beings.  For our aspiring athletes, we cut recess so you could practice bubbling answer sheets rather than play.  For our aspiring artists, we told you to stop drawing on your folders even though your drawings were brilliant.  For our aspiring musicians, we told you to stop drumming on the desk even though your rhythm was spot-on and in perfect time.  For our aspiring performers, we told you to stop acting the fool in class and stop making jokes even though our own sixteen-year-old selves would have been laughing there right beside you.  For our aspiring authors, we told you to stop reading your book of choice and to pay attention to what we were saying.

However, what we were saying really didn't matter.

We taught you lies.  We omitted truths.  We literally white-washed everything that you as educated citizens should know.  We taught you to accept our word as Gospel and to not question those in authority.  We used textbooks that were approved by the district, not because they were thought provoking, but because they were the least expensive.  We taught state standards, because that was expected of us.  We never stopped to think if what we were teaching was, in fact, what we should be teaching.  We knew we would be tested on the state-approved curriculum so that is what we taught.  We avoided controversial topics for fear of parents or administrators finding out.  We were told to teach to the test, plain and simple.  You learned the CliffNotes version of every core academic subject you took in school.  And now, society expects you to succeed with a rudimentary understanding of everything your teachers taught you.

You're welcome.

So as you cross that stage today, the emotion you feel shouldn't be one of pride.  It should be one of anger.  Anger toward a system that has given you a worthless piece of paper representing four years of valueless knowledge.  Anger toward a system that has intentionally weeded out one out of every five of your peers.  Anger toward a system that has repressed your talents so that you can regurgitate the best ways to bubble A, B, C, or D.  Anger toward a system that claims to be the best public school system in the world and yet has so fantastically failed each and every one of you in some way.

Get angry.  Stay angry.  Use that anger to enact social change and social justice.  Use your experience these past twelve or thirteen years to fuel your fire.  Sad you missed elementary school recess?  Start an initiative to get it put back in school.  Angry that us teachers didn't let you eat in classrooms?  Start a public awareness campaign about teenage nutrition.  Angry your high school didn't have drama or band?  Crash the school board meeting, raise hell, and demand to know why those classes aren't offered.  Angry that we have students at all grade levels being tested each and every year to an arbitrary set of standards?  Contact your local representative and let him or her know what you think about the new rounds of education reform known as Common Core.

Your teachers failed you because we were weak.  You are here today in spite of us.  Think long and hard about your own school experience.  Without your outrage, it is the exact same school experience your children and your children's children will have down the road.  Change only happens from the bottom up.  If you are angry about your own high school experience, then go out and do something about.  Because if you don't, nobody else will.  Your teachers failed you but you still have the chance to be successful.  Despite everything you went through, you still have the opportunity to make it better for those that will come after you.  It is you, the students, who now have the opportunity to become America's teachers.

Please do better than we did.



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