Students are bravely confronting the mental health challenges they face. We owe them honesty, especially when it comes to a fundamental tension in American schools we aren’t thinking enough about. Though we claim to value children as individuals, we also sort them into winners and losers. Ignoring this fact makes it harder to support student mental health.
There are at least three main ways students are sorted. The first is academic. We grade students and we rank them. The second is extracurricular. Some students play in the first chair, some are starters, some are class presidents. The third is social. Some students are more popular than others.
This leaves schools in a bind. There will always be hierarchies in schools, many that the schools themselves actively promote and reward. And this makes it hard when a student feels worthless because they stand at the bottom of these hierarchies. It makes the claim that each student counts or matters sound hollow, because students know where they stand: near the middle of the class rankings, on the bottom of a team’s depth charts, not invited to the highest-status social events.
A simplistic solution to this problem is to pretend we live in a world without any distinctions: a status-blind world. But as much as we might pretend to live in this world, we know better. Worse, it is more than disingenuous for schools to tell students that status doesn’t matter; it amounts to gaslighting them. Students know where they stand and don’t deserve to be lied to.
One way to wiggle out of this tension is to promote learning styles and multiple intelligences. Under this way of thinking, a child who does not excel is in fact equally excellent, just in a different way. They are a kinesthetic learner or an auditory learner. Though they may’ve gotten the math problem wrong, this is because it wasn’t presented in their preferred learning style.
This solution avoids the real issue. For example, our world values people who can become engineers, and some students have more interest in this field and more willingly devote themselves to it. And though teachers should do everything possible to cultivate the interests and talents of all their students, calling a student who cannot perform up to the level of excellence in math and science equally successful but just in another way is avoiding the fact that this student is not successful at something our world values.
So, what should we do? My solution is twofold. The first is to get back to the idea that each student has an inherent worth and dignity that is not tied to where they stand in any established hierarchy, school-sanctioned or not. And the main way that teachers can express this belief is by getting back to their basic function of educating.
As a longtime teacher, I find it far too easy to pat myself on the back because exceptional students excel. A teacher who believes they are successful because the top 10 percent of their class is learning is not doing their job. Rather, the job of teaching is pushing the students who are struggling to learn. We show students that they matter when we educate them, not when we call their lack of success, and ours, proof that they are just a “different type of learner.”
Second, schools can do more to help students listen to their unique calling and feel confident in it. We should reaffirm our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of the individual, each of whom is called to a unique purpose. This belief has led to respect for freedom, because if everyone has a unique calling, then they must be free to cultivate it, even if it runs counter to what others think is valuable.
While it is not the case that every student can be the team captain or valedictorian, each of us can make steady growth toward becoming the person we are meant to be.
Just because a student doesn’t get the lead in a play and just because the student might not excel in each of their academic subjects, some combination of the student’s talents and interests are valuable even if this combination doesn’t fit neatly into preestablished hierarchies.
Schools must set aside more time for mentoring and give students opportunities to reflect on purpose beyond the obvious ways of standing out. Schools can encourage more long-term thinking and planning. While it is not the case that every student can be the team captain or valedictorian, each of us can make steady growth toward becoming the person we are meant to be. Schools should continue to reward those who demonstrate early success, but we need to make it clear that the point isn’t winning high school; it is building a foundation for continued growth in our unique potential.
While it is easy for some people to excel in those things our world values, effortlessly standing on the top, most of us won’t be there. But this doesn’t mean we are worthless. Rather, we will muddle through, and with effort and vision, we will live a life of purpose.
Schools need to do more to encourage this effort and vision. This, and not patting ourselves on the back for the feats of our most successful students or pretending that status doesn’t matter, shows that we value our students.
Instead of pretending we live in a status-blind world or calling failure a different type of intelligence, we need to help students see that with effort they can make progress, and that in the process of putting in this effort, they will realize what they were called to become. Students are honest about their mental health challenges, and we need to be honest about the hurdles we are throwing in the way by not getting real about status and the roles it plays in schools.
A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 2022 edition of Education Week as The Stubborn Persistence Of School Hierarchies