Should you be afraid of high school?

Stories of fear and violence have parents rattled, even those whose kids are years away from grade nine. Teacher Jane Albright tells the truth about today's secondary classrooms

“I’m not going to class. That teacher’s all up inside my personal bubble.”

“Up yours, doofus.”

“Don’t be looking at my booty.”

“Suck my %&*#.”

I’m heading to my grade-10 civics class in the Toronto high school where I have taught for eight years. As I walk these packed hallways, where more than 1,000 students and teachers share space, I hear snippets of conversation, usually vile, but sometimes sweet and funny. If I think harm is intended, I’ll intervene. None of these comments stopped me, although I did raise my eyebrows at the last line. (“Oh, my bad. Sorry, miss,” came the reply.)

Students who don’t know me can be rude; last week a girl sucked her teeth — a supremely disrespectful gesture — when I asked her to move off to class. But the kids I teach typically respect my efforts to keep the environment functioning smoothly. Still, calming down a crowd of unruly teens is the last thing I want to do at work; I’d rather be researching Darfur war crimes for my history class, or previewing a documentary on the Quiet Revolution for the grade 12s. These days, however, high school can be a frightening place for everybody involved.
Media stories on high school violence are hard for parents to ignore. And lately, that’s all we seem to hear about the secondary system. A recent study of Quebec schools found that 84 percent of students had witnessed fights, and more than one-quarter did not feel secure at school; a St. John’s student was hospitalized after a lunchtime beating last fall; a high-profile report on Toronto’s high schools earlier this year identified a pervasive “culture of fear” including weapons, bullying and sexual assaults. But those snapshots don’t capture the whole picture of what it’s like in high school today.

Here are a few of the items that have been rattling around in my head recently.

“Where’s Asad*?” I ask the civics class. Shrugs all round…and why not? The schedule has students and teachers running all over the school every 55 minutes, five times a day. Some kids barely manage to get themselves in the right place with the appropriate books, let alone track a fellow student. Then Kara pipes up, “He was in the office with some cops.”

Next week in IAPS (Introduction to Anthropology, Psychology and Sociology) class, I’ll be teaching the grief cycle. You know: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I wonder how to broach the subject, since a few kids were friends of a youth who was fatally shot by police last fall in a Toronto park; two others lost a parent recently. Should I talk to these students before the class? Or should I openly acknowledge the shooting death and the strange silence surrounding the police investigation into what happened?

Last night I was marking at a coffee shop when a colleague spotted me and came in to say hi. Earlier in the week he had been assaulted by a 15-year-old student in the gym, his shirt torn to bits. Call the kid Michael; he was pissed off because he had been banned from basketball games due to previous bad behaviour, and he took it out on my colleague. Teachers who knew Michael weren’t surprised — he had been walking around in a foul-mouthed rage since September. We talked about the consequences: Would Michael get suspended or expelled? What message would that send to the other students? We made some sick jokes about applying for danger pay.

The Michael incident got me thinking about the recent report on Toronto high schools — known as the Falconer report — which was commissioned after the hallway shooting death of a teen last spring. Many teachers I know applauded the report’s more thoughtful recommendations: Acknowledge problem students; stop transferring them away to other schools and begin designing appropriate programs for them; hire more hall monitors and special education assistants. Recommendations aside, I felt relieved that this grim but accurate depiction of our working environment was finally out in the open.
Lately it seems as if every parent I know of elementary-school-aged kids asks me for advice about high school. I’m happy to discuss what I’ve observed, but I stop any conversation that begins with When I was in high school…. It’s just not the same as it was, thanks to massive changes in society, socio-economic realities, technology, family size, parental workloads, school discipline and curriculum directives. I tell them students seem weaker than they were 20 years ago in some areas, such as writing research essays and being respectful. But they are clearly ahead in other areas such as comprehending social justice, being self-aware and media literate and, of course, grasping new technologies before the rest of us.
If your kids are in elementary school now, you probably chat with their teachers pretty regularly. Promise yourself you’ll keep doing that when they hit high school. Too many parents just disappear from the school community, and we’d all be better off if they stayed. It’s a good idea to show up at parents’ night, even if — perhaps especially if — your kids tell you not to bother. For me, parents’ night usually ends with two sentiments: gratitude for insights into the behaviour of those students whose parents showed up, and wishing more parents had come.

Back at my desk after a gnarly walk through the halls, I look at stacks of assignments leaning on a mound of books, videos and folders of articles used to supplement outdated texts. There is a note from the student group trying to get a clothing drive off the ground next month, asking if I can be the staff supervisor for next Wednesday’s meeting. A sheaf of computer-generated comments for report cards sticks out from under a hand-crafted Nicaraguan bowl given to me by 18-year-old Simone, a bright kid who had to drop out because her daughter was sick. I hope she’ll re-enrol next September. A paper rose folded by another student hangs from the shelf.

Over the years I’ve received many odd and interesting presents from kids I’ve taught, but what I value most — apart from the buzz I get when a class has gone really well — is a file of photocopied exemplary essays by students who dug into their topics with a passion that informed or moved me. There was Yuanyuan, who wrote about Japanese war crimes in China, explaining that the mass graves were called thousand people pits. Or William, who worried, after reading Bassanio profess his love for Portia in The Merchant of Venice, that romantic love replaces and destroys comradeship. Rereading these reminds me why I became a teacher.

High school is changing all right. It is more frightening, but it is also more stimulating — and full of opportunities. Some students take university classes concurrently or campaign to help build a school overseas; they can compete in national math competitions and take classes in Spanish, Mandarin, philosophy, accounting and business. Amid the jostling, slagging, foul language, bullying and thieving are the bulk of students, fretting and giggling as they surpass the 40 hours of community work required to graduate, prep for fashion shows, vie for work in the library, don rubber gloves to make sure the cafe-teria’s recycling is properly sorted or volunteer to peer tutor weaker students.

Asad got booted to another school. I liked him and spoke up on his behalf, but was told he’d been tagged for shoplifting and suspected drug dealing. Still, I thought to myself (while an administrator who hadn’t been inside a classroom for 10 years was explaining why he’d been transferred) Asad was the only kid in my civics class who had read independently about the Black Panthers and Saddam Hussein. The transfer was not to a special school or program, but just to get him out of our school. I can imagine how he will become alienated.

As for the grief cycle class, I did an Internet search on the youth who had been killed, and used his mother’s comments as a starting point for discussion.

Michael, the kid who assaulted my colleague, was suspended pending charges. My tolerance has limits; I’d dance a jig if he were kicked out of our school. But I wouldn’t wish him transferred without treatment to any unsuspecting student body or classroom.

In the weeks after the Falconer report hit the news-papers last winter, a group of students at our school conducted a survey, asking other kids about their experiences of violence. They found that most of our students feel safer at school than they do in their own neighbourhoods. Yes, it is more frightening in high schools today, but so is the world outside.

*Names of all students have been changed.
High school survival tips for parents

Know the absentee routine. Most high schools phone home to report absences. As one clever student told me: “Oh, we know when the school machine calls; it’s usually between 6 and 7 p.m. We can answer the phone or delete the messages before the parents see them.”

Talk to the teachers. Especially in large high schools, it is the teachers, not the principal or vice-principals, who know the students. If there’s something a classroom teacher should know about your child, tell her; don’t assume the administration will pass information along.

Let your child take responsibility. Students tell me they hate it when their parents get after them to do homework. Sure you should keep abreast of your child’s assignments, but in the senior grades especially, let him decide when and how to do the work.

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