As a currently unemployed educator and writer, I am far from an expert on career or life readiness. I do not claim to know all the ingredients for success nor would I be so bold as to attempt to impart what I do know on impressionable young minds as if it’s gospel.
Nonetheless, I feel I—and you (the reader) by extension—can do a better job than my teachers did when I was the impressionable one. Experience has taught me that schools have failed at preparing the younger generations for what life is rather than what it’s supposed to be.
I was never prepared for unemployment by my teachers, administrators, or counselors. For that matter, I was never given advice on dealing with heartbreak, addiction (the DARE curriculum was a confirmed flop; all I can remember from it is the insipid song they made us sing), depression, anxiety, or despair. It was never mentioned—not even in passing—that I might fail in life beyond just tests or classes. School was so divorced from real life that I remember feeling a wave of unwelcome truth pass over me each day I walked out the door upon dismissal.
My education prepared for an idealized world that I know at 32 does not exist and never did. I was cheated and deceived for years by the very people who were supposed to guide and nurture me. I do not say this out of bitterness. The harsh language I use is to emphasize what to me is so obvious it’s hardly worth analyzing but for others might be considered heresy.
After all, my experience is just that. Maybe my classmates really did go on to be doctors, lawyers, firefighters, and even teachers without a shred of outward uncertainty or inner self-doubt. Maybe they learned all they needed to know while in school. Maybe they never looked at themselves in the mirror and wondered why they spent so many years seated in those uncomfortable chairs, behind those pockmarked desks, under those fluorescent lights, learning to conjugate verbs or reduce fractions—when none of it answered any of the questions keeping them up at night. Questions like why am I here?, what should I do with my life?, should I get married?, should I have children?, should I challenge authority?, should I vote for a better candidate or for a better world? And so on.
I doubt anyone feels satisfied with their childhood education. I am baffled that anyone would consciously make the decision not to expand his or her mind as a grownup—yet I have seen it with my own eyes on so many occasions that I worry it has become the new normal. My own grandmother would purchase packing bubbles in bulk and pop them incessantly while she watched television reruns so that she would not have to think. This is not hyperbole—though, I wish it were.
And who is to blame for this if not the teachers who failed to teach that learning matters and to caution against torpor? Who is to blame for the state of the sheep if not the shepherds?
Educators need to do more than teach content and preach prepackaged notions of success. They need to teach life. They need to teach the good, the bad, and, especially, the ugly. They need to encourage students to think about the bad and the ugly as much as they think about the good because life certainly has its fair share of evil and ugliness. I got a taste of this when my class studied World War II in tenth grade, but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t relatable enough.
Teachers should set their students up for success by teaching them about failure, self-doubt, and suffering—that it will happen to them and that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Every great historical figure, literary icon, scientist, and mathematician must have failed at some point in his or her life, but I do not recall learning about those failures in my formative years. Even my teachers did not admit when they made mistakes—when those are perhaps the best teachable moments. Life is not analogous to a perfectly trimmed, silky-smooth fabric whose careful stitching gets you an “A+” in home economics, and success does not occur in a linear or exponential pattern the way we learn to plot points on a coordinate plane in middle school.
If only I had been taught this before I experienced failure firsthand.
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