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An Open Letter of Apology to the Class of 2018

     Graduation is a natural and important time to reflect. It’s important for the graduates, but it’s also important for the rest of us. Our society has very few rites of passage more heralded that high school graduation. So, with yet another graduation season upon us, allow me the indulgence to reflect once again.
   
     For previous graduation seasons, reflections included the following: students we did and didn’t recognize, how we bombarded our graduates with rules and regulations vs. relationships and many other musings. This year, for the class of 2018, I offer you an Open Letter of Apology. That’s right. I’m sorry. Truth is that I have not worked directly with high school students since the class of 2014. I served previous classes from 2014 back for about 25 years or so. And although I didn’t serve you directly class of 2018, I have, behind the scenes, still been rooting for you and attempting to be your tireless champion.
     First, I’d like to tell you how impressed I am with you. When I hear older people moan about the “younger generation,” I want to give them an affectionate, but rattling slap in the face and say, “are you kidding me?” I have been lamenting each and every year how our young people are so much better than I was (or we were). After almost three decades of working with young people in six high schools, I’m here to dispel and repudiate the notion that young people are anything less than their parents or grandparents. Indeed, I actually think each generation gets better.
     When I graduated from high school in the early 80’s, I had never heard about or witnessed a peer of mine volunteering to do community service. Less that 20 years later, I watched as hundreds of students I worked with create charity events, start new charitable organizations, raise money and awareness. Indeed, I have now seen young people own their own companies, become activists, become community leaders and truly impact their environments. They have their own websites, blogs, recording studios and non-profit groups. If one looks closely at all, you could be and should be amazed at what young people are doing. They are presenting, creating and communicating at levels that my generation never accomplished at that age (or maybe any age). I think we often say and do these things because we don’t understand young people - and maybe we don’t want to. Older folks see things they don’t understand and then criticize, minimize and even ostracize. We remember things one way and anything that deviates from that self-established norm is bad. 
      So, with that in mind, here is why I think it’s necessary to apologize to you Class of 2018. And I am apologizing on behalf of all of the adults, as well as the system, that have let you down. Don’t get me wrong. Many of the adults in your lives have done the right thing. They have continued to work for you; not against you. They have worked to create healthy educational environments designed for your success. Many of you have done well and should be proud. For the rest of you, those of you have not done well thus far, again I apologize. I apologize on behalf of all the educators, leaders, parents and other adults who have perpetuated the status quo instead of delivering something better - an education and learning experience - designed for you. You, the Class of 2018, deserved better and we let you down. We could have and should have done better.
      I’d like to apologize to those of you who did not graduate. I don’t mean walking through the ceremony, but rather those that didn’t finish (regardless of why). You didn’t finish high school for many reasons. Some of those may be on you and your family, but much of that is on us (your educators and leaders). Most of you left school at some point because you didn’t think it was relevant, important or meaningful. We failed to engage you in learning - in skill acquisition important for economic and life success. Now, that being said, I know that many of you will be fine. Despite what we often say, you can be successful, very successful, without graduating high school. The #’s are not good, but each of you can start over, still go to school, still get training and still go after a career. It won’t be easy, but it’s possible. We could have and should have done better.
     Next, I’d like to say I'm sorry to all of you, way too many of you, who feel like you didn’t learn anything relevant to your futures. We, as a nation, owe you an education that helps you move forward, gain skills, gain confidence and gain experiences. You’re glad you graduated and I get that. But now what? Did we prepare you for any next step? Again, it’s not too late. You can still do anything. But you need to go out now and find out how to gain the skills, experiences and confidence to get there. We could have and should have done better.
      For those of you that are aware that you received a 20th century education (or maybe even 19th century) in the 21st century, again I apologize. We have known for a long time that the teacher-driven, lecture-based and textbook model is not only outdated, but the least effective. Even though we have had great digital technology and resources for years, too many of you still suffered through an outdated and ill-fated instructional approach. We owed all of you a very different experience. Some of you got that, but far too many did not. As one of my colleagues said the other day, “It’s 2018 and you wouldn’t know that in far too many of our schools.” The world as a whole, and especially the world of work, are changing at a much rapid pace than ever. And we owed you an education more reflective of that. We owed all of you an opportunity to gain a whole set of skills and experiences more aligned with your futures needs. We could have and should have done better.
     Also, for those of you that were not treated well by your teachers and schools, again I apologize. You deserved not only an education, but you deserved and needed respect, love, support and mentoring. Many of you got this and that’s good. Too many didn't. Too many of you were in classrooms and schools where too many teachers didn’t care. Again, don’t get me wrong. We have thousands of teachers that bust their butts daily to do anything and everything to make the school experience better for all kids. But most of us in education, and I think most of you outside of education, are well aware that we have systems that protect bad teachers. Almost every school in America has a teacher or two, sadly sometimes more, that stopped trying long ago (if they ever did to begin with). They stopped learning. They didn’t like young people. They badgered students, demeaned them, insulted them or just didn’t give them any energy. For this, again, I apologize. We could have and should have done better.
     One of the many goals of education and schools should be to instill a true love of learning in all students. After all, learning can change our lives for the better each and everyday. Indeed, many experts are now saying that our ability to continue to learn, as well as embrace that process, may be one of the most important skills in our future economy. But sadly and even ironically, far too many of our students not only lack the love of learning, but actually associate school with their dislike of learning. They have learned one lesson far too often…..that school and learning are not synonymous. They have endured intellectual and emotional scars from school based on their experience as a learner. This may take years to reverse and for many it may not be reversible. We somehow, collectively, have created educational environments that actually produce the exact opposite of our intended goals. Instead of inspiring our young people to realize that life is a continual pursuit or more knowledge, skills, experiences and greater truth, we have fostered a feeling and mindset that school “sucks” - ergo learning “sucks.” Pardon my french but sometimes we have to call the proverbial spade a spade. Right? We could have and should have done better.
      Learning is about connections. School should be fostering a connection between all students and their world - their community. A large majority of our students have gone through 13 years for formal public education and never ventured outside the school walls for their education. Sure, some have. Some chose the traditional methods of achieving this such as the extra-curricular world of sports, performing arts or service education. And that’s great. But, we didn’t make this connection curricular. There was no expectation or mechanism that one’s learning would involve connecting to the community - you know the real world. Not only did too many of our students miss out on the value of things like work-based learning, place-based learning or service-based learning, but they missed out on relationships, mentors and the direction they needed to take their high school experience on to the next level of preparation for career and life. They missed out on one of the most important aspects of learning - realizing that what they do can change the world and themselves. We could have and should have done better.
      Lastly, a majority of grads, or non-grads, are now out of high school with no set life or career plan. And it’s ok for any of us, especially 18-year-olds, to not know what we want to do with the rest of our lives. We all know that many 54-year-olds don’t yet know either. But the point is that shouldn’t have the four years of high school or 13 years of K-12 education enlightened them at all, pointed them in some direction or given them some sense of the tools/resources necessary to get themselves there? Again, it’s not too late to figure this out. However, delaying this work until adulthood seems counterproductive. We could have and should have done better.
      I am aware that this represents a rather cynical view. I apologize for that. I’m also aware that we can point out thousands, maybe millions, of high school grads whose experience is different that what I described here. For that, thank you to all of the educators who have and are making that a reality. But let’s remind and challenge one another about what happens when we don’t do the right thing or make the transformational changes necessary for all students. With each graduation and group of young people that pass through our system, they individually and collectively don’t get another chance at that opportunity. Anytime educators say things like “maybe we’ll do that next year,” “let’s pilot that first,” or “let’s not reinvent the wheel,” we need to acknowledge that we have just screwed yet another graduating class once again. Not reinvent the wheel? The wheel of opportunity is rolling by at a tremendous pace. Maybe it’s time to roll the old wheel off the cliff and invent something that doesn't’ look like a wheel at all. We can, and hopefully, will do better!

(photos courtesy of Foter, Michael Niehoff LLC, Idea of the Day, Pixabay, Dr. Kevin Fleming, Minarets High School)

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