Nothing To Be Afraid Of
Kara Nottingham, Division 2, 12th grade #ws18e-s3d2

When you motivate people solely based on what could go wrong, it’s only natural that they burn out. My entire life, I’ve been reminded by many of the importance of not being a failure; I should chase good grades because it would be terrible to be a failure, I should go to college because otherwise I may not land the job, I should get a good job or else, and so it goes. The pressure only seems to intensify the older I get, and there’s only a couple moments free from the failure that looms over us, baring its ugly teeth. A moment that sticks out to me is a few months into my freshman year, when the administration informed us that if we kept our grades up, we could go to Cedar Point to ride roller coasters with our friends at the end of the year. Suddenly we were all motivated and encouraging each other to push through even when it was hard, because we all wanted to see each other at the end of the year! I haven’t really had something like that since, and I’ve seen it wear the student body down, especially now that college is staring us in the face. I wouldn’t shy away from pinning the toxic school culture of overtired, stressed out kids who aren’t enjoying their education on that emphasis on the negative possibilities. It’s draining to be reminded of what could go wrong. I think it’s shallow and ignorant to assume young people don’t want to learn and must be motivated by consequence. Everyone is curious to a certain degree, we’ve just taken the magic and encouragement out of the process and left people with an ‘or else’ mentality: pass the test, get the grade, go to college or else. What if we treated things differently?

In saying all of this, it’s not to say that all education is being handled wrong. I’ve had a lot of teachers and really positive experiences that make me believe there is definitely a better way to handle how we learn. I used to be a part of a small ‘gifted’ group that met once a week instead of regular classes that handled education in a very hands-on way. The teacher was allowed to teach whatever she saw fit- so our quarterly units were on things like neurology, vision, chocolate, and the Alaskan Iditarod. We had common-core-flavored stations we could choose to go to with a partner and do challenging math problems, logic puzzles, and history discussions. It was a highly personal and student-focus approach, and I had never had such a positive encounter with learning about subjects. I never felt that I was lacking in knowledge because we didn’t have big textbooks and standardized tests- rather, she tested our knowledge with a sheep brain dissection, or our ability to track and calculate sledding routes and stops needed.Things like that made what I learned stick with me so much more than any threats of failure have. It’s been through that class and a handful of very influential people that I’ve understood this. What some complain about as a common core problem, I see as an execution problem; I think we can make topics less intimidating if we try! Assuming ‘gifted’ kids learn best in unique ways is shallow. Everyone deserves a full education that leaves them with information they can apply to their lives.

When you focus on the product instead of the process, you may get results, but not a deep understanding. The main issue with a systematic, uniform approach to education is that just like any system, you can adapt to it, cheat it, and learn the easiest way to find the path of least resistance. I’ve found this to be true among my friends from various schools; everyone knows the tips and tricks to save the extra work and get the easy A. At the end of the day, nobody is really watching closely to see how you get the grade, it’s just a matter of having it. It’s only a different story with very memorable teachers in my life. I remember distinctly the kinds of people who take the time to apply their students to ways of thinking that are usually uncomfortable and unconventional, to painstakingly put thought and purpose into the actual process of learning an idea, not just hitting requirements on a rubric. Honestly, their classes drove me crazy. But now when I talk to them, I can appreciate how hard they pushed me and how much care they put into my education. If it were up to me, I’d make it so every teacher had that kind of constructive freedom in their classroom and curriculum, so that students could learn the common concepts while being listened to and challenged.

Common core is a thing we students like to drag a lot, but my understanding of it has shifted, too. Obviously we students need to stay at a certain common level of understanding across the board. The biggest problem is how it is implemented- cookie cutter curriculums that aren’t personal to whoever may be teaching them. It’s a big shift from the status quo, but I’d honestly vouch for an educational system that trusts its teachers. Sometimes I wonder if we don’t give our educators credit as individuals. If a person in a teaching position has something specific they can bring to the table, I’d much rather learn the requirements through their strengths and get the most out of that class. If teachers can take the need-to-know ideas and build them up in whatever way their students learn best and they teach best, it might not feel like such a chore to show up. I've lived that concept at my current high school- you can see clearly when a teacher has put their heart and soul into what they're doing, and it fosters a culture of respect.

On that note, we have an interesting way of dealing with respect in the average schools. Think about the way the media views the student teacher relationship; how we’ve grown up hearing about it in cartoons, books, and comics. Enter the grumpy, authoritarian teacher who doesn’t want to be there, and the misunderstood kids who have to shut up or face failure. It's not as dramatic in real life, but that sense of respect between teacher and student could be so much stronger in the everyday classroom. Respect should be a mutual thing- meaning the teachers should trust that their students will be able to apply themselves and engage in the class, and the students should trust that the teachers can do their job and bring something of value to the table. When I feel I’m being really listened to, I start to really engage in the class and feel that extra push to try harder. Suddenly it seems like less of an obligation and more of a conversation, and it's less of a race against failure, and more of an opportunity.

That fear-monster that follows us around, rearing its ugly head as we pull our own up from the pillow to turn in that assignment right before midnight, as we enter class, as we frantically type out scholarship essays, it’s very hard to shake. But I think there’s a weakness that we can strike it down from. If we put more faith in individuals to form communities that are passionate about learning then we could implement an education system that is more engaged in personalized and meaningful learning. School could eventually become something that we don’t dread so much as gain information that actually benefits us from. I believe in giving both the students and the teachers the freedom to start moving towards more individualized, engaging, and adaptable ways of learning. If we break out of the ideas that have been tiring generations down and start to put more trust in students, staff and teachers, we could equip kids for years to come with knowledge and confidence that would carry them towards a future that’s exciting- and nothing to be so afraid of.
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