The Real World

What is the “real world”?

And how do you know when you’re there?

I remember in fourth and fifth grade, my teachers would tell us we couldn’t get away with our childish shenanigans in the “real world,” which I later interpreted as “middle school.”

And how my middle school teachers would tell us all the kindnesses they bestowed upon us would not happen in the “real world,” or “high school.”

By high school, though, I had internalized this “real world” dialogue and found myself constantly looking to the next milestone in my life. Part of this had to do with the childhood I had, but most of it was that I had been taught the life I was living wasn’t, well, real.

Now, in my thirties, this feeling has persisted. I graduated from high school and went off to college, but that didn’t quite feel “real” to me. So I kept thinking that I wasn’t there yet, that maybe my life would begin once I graduated college and got my first “real” job. Then I did that, but I still didn’t feel there yet. So I thought, maybe the real world began when I got married and settled down. But even after marrying and finding full-time employment, and despite doing all these adult things like paying my bills and working on my Masters, I was still being told this “real world” narrative. It wasn’t until I had children of my own and martyred myself at the altar of motherhood that it felt like I was welcomed into this “real world” at last, that I had joined this elite circle of real adults once I was chronically sleep deprived, broke, and stressed beyond belief. My older colleagues would smile knowingly at me in the hallway as I shuffled into school in the morning, coffee in hand.

Then I found myself lending my voice to the narrative. Whiny students? Can’t whine in the real world.

Late work? Can’t be late in the real world.

Missing work? Gotta be more responsible in the real world. No one is going to track you down when you miss a meeting.

Can’t sit through boring things once in a while? Tough, the real world is boring.

At the same time, despite what I thought were my best efforts, I was no closer to being the inspiring educator I thought I could be. Sure, things were going fine, but not great. Year after year, I couldn’t puzzle out why my students still continued to dislike reading and writing, or why they just seemed so apathetic toward school. I began each year with a speech about how I didn’t believe in the teachers vs. students tale being spun on our building, how I was an adult that would genuinely care for them if they only just asked.

The problem was, my actions didn’t match my words. I let policies in my building lull me into complacency, marking down late work so my grading practices were consistent with others, moving from unit to unit without offering retakes of assessments lest the students cheat, getting snippy with kids for not knowing where I kept the absent folder in my room (“It’s been in the same place all year!”)

Last summer, I left my classroom at the end of the school year feeling like I didn’t really care whether or not I returned in August.

Fortunately, I spent the month of July working with my local National Writing Project’s site, the Greater Madison Writing Project. I joined my department for an incredibly educational week learning about the College, Career, and Community Writers Program. I attended the GMWP Summer Institute and worked my way through my own teacher’s workshop, in which I spent countless hours researching how to truly engage my students in their own literacy.

I started this year with a new vision and plan in place: in order to engage my students, I would try contract grading as a way to remove adverse consequences. In other words, as long as my students engaged in the work of their writing in the manner and spirit in which I had asked, their grade would not be in jeopardy. I came to this idea after reading work by Phillip Schlechtyand Maja Wilson, and I wrote my contract based on work by Peter Elbow and Asao Inoue.

There were two immediate responses to this new approach: quiet confusion from my students, who truly did not understand what I was doing or how it would benefit them, and push back from parents, who were quick to tell me that I was not preparing their students for the “real world.”

But when I started to reflect on their vision of the real world, this harsh and unforgiving place where everything was difficult and demanding, I realized that things just didn’t add up.

Are there consequences in life beyond high school? Of course! I am not denying that. But I want teachers to acknowledge two things: one, that adverse consequences are not as immediate and severe as our predecessors made them out to be, and two, instead of doling out punishments to students for the sake of preparing them for this real world, perhaps we should be teaching them the skills to avoid these mis-steps they might take.

It seems simple to me, really. If we want to prepare students for life beyond high school, let’s help create a generation of kids who will grow up with solid problem-solving skills and an affinity for helping others.

Once I shifted my paradigm — that my students aren’t apathetic and unmotivated and instead haven’t been treated like real human beings who need to be taught skills beyond academics — everything, and I mean everything, changed for me. I began treating every question like an authentic inquiry and not a nuisance. If a student didn’t know where my absent folder was, I smiled with warmth and personally took them to the right place in the room, explaining patiently that any missed work would be placed in the corresponding folder with their name on it, even if we were six months into the school year already. I began asking for their input when I made decisions about where our instruction was headed next, and I listened carefully. If a student lashed out and swore about the work we were doing, I waited for the right time and approached that student with patience and kindness, and nearly every single time their aggression had nothing to do with our assignment, but more to do with life outside the classroom. Instead of an immediate detention for inappropriate behavior, I addressed some steps the student could take the next time they found themselves escalating in the classroom to avoid a public meltdown or conflict with others.

Because here it is: their lives now ARE real. We have to stop marginalizing our students’ lives by telling them they aren’t in the real world yet, because they are. Struggles and challenges don’t stop coming our way just because we are technically adults, and I know I appreciate it when I’m treated with kindness and empathy rather than condescension and irritation. So why do we deny this to our students? Don’t they, as children, need kindness and empathy more than we do?

Let’s stop this “real world” narrative. Instead, let’s be transparent about the decisions we make that we believe will prepare them for the next phase of life. And if when we find we have a practice or policy in place that doesn’t mirror what we know happens in similar situations outside of school, then let’s reflect on the purpose of that practice and adjust as needed.