In Support of Senior Release

I grew up and went to school in Hanover County, Virginia, and our high schools (at least the one I went to) had a policy of allowing seniors to leave school early if they had met most of the requirements for their chosen diploma (advanced or standard) and only had a couple of classes they had to take their senior year. We were on a block schedule (4 classes one day, then the other 4 the next day, at 1.5 hours each), so some days you might leave early, and other days you might not. All seniors had to take Government and English, and most people still had a science class or elective they needed to take. But many people had met all of their requirements for math, because so many people take algebra in middle school that they only have to take 3 more math classes in high school, meaning they’re done by their senior year. Because our school day didn’t start until 8:30, our curriculum also offered early morning classes for certain core subjects like government (for seniors only), so you could come to school early and get a class out of the way and then get out early and go to work or do whatever it was that you wanted to do. My own experience was that I went to school until 3:30 on “even” days and got out around 11 on “odd” days. Some people got out at 2, and some people went all day on one day and then might only have one class the next day. My point is that we were only required to be in school for the classes that we were enrolled in and receiving a grade for.

The school system where I sub does not have this policy, however. According to one of the seniors I spoke to, they are only allowed one free period (they are on a period schedule, where they have 7 classes a day for 45-50 minutes each). For the other periods where they are not actually IN the class, they are enrolled as “teacher’s aides,” which means they sit in a corner and do their homework, sleep, and maybe occasionally run an errand for the teacher. They are ON the role and they have to show up, or they are counted absent. If they are caught skipping these classes, they are punished just the same as if they were actually taking the class for credit. In addition, the high schools have all changed their schedules this year to accommodate an extra credit requirement for the diplomas of those students who will be graduating in 2013 (ie, this year’s junior class). They used to be on a 6-period schedule – now they have 7 periods a day (same amount of hours in school, they just shortened all of the classes). This one extra credit required by the state does not apply to THIS year’s seniors, so these kids have yet another class they have to sit in, without getting anything out of it.

I have a number of problems with this policy. My main issue is that the time that these students spend sitting in a class that they’ve already taken or that has no bearing whatsoever on what they want to do could be spent more productively. Most of these kids will either be going to college next year, or entering the workforce. If they plan on going to college, they could be getting out early to work to save money for school expenses. They could also be doing internships, or taking community college classes. If they plan on immediately entering the workforce after they graduate, allowing them to get out early would allow them to get a head start in the job market. And in this economy, don’t we owe it to our kids to help them out and facilitate success as much as we can? Many of these kids already have after-school jobs, of course, but if they could get more hours, it would be highly beneficial for them. They could start saving up for a car, or they use the money to pay for their car insurance, cell phone bill, and other expenses. They could even start saving up money to move out of their parents’ homes, which, as every 18 year old can tell you, is the coolest possible thing you could do right out of high school.

The area where I live is by no means impoverished, but there are definitely A LOT of families that struggle to make ends meet. If the senior students in these families were able to work enough to pay for more of their own expenses or contribute to the family budget, it would really ease the financial pain felt by the rest of their clan. One girl I spoke with near the very beginning of the school year said that her father had died of cancer last year, and now her mother had cancer and couldn’t work very much. Her goal was to go to an automotive college, but she was afraid she wouldn’t have enough money. A few extra hours of work each day added on to her paycheck would have really helped out her AND her mom. Would all of these kids make productive use of their extra time away from school? No, probably not. But NONE of them are being productive sitting in the back of a class they’re not even really enrolled in!

One of my other problems with this policy is that, quite frankly, it’s boring to the kids. School is supposed to be intellectually stimulating and (hopefully) enjoyable, but if you spend half your time stuck in a corner taking a nap because you only need 2 classes your senior year, it’s probably not going to be the most mentally invigorating thing you’ve ever been through. I asked the student aide in one of my classes today if she liked being an aide, and she said she felt like it was a waste of her life. She only had ONE class she had to take this year. She said she chose to have her free period as 1st period so she could get some extra sleep every morning, and then she came to school for her ONE class. Then she had to sit through 5 other classes as an aide, where she did NOTHING. That’s almost 4 hours EACH DAY of this girl’s life that is wasted by state-mandated boredom. She told me that she would rather get out early and go to work. What kid doesn’t want to make some extra money for their senior year, instead of sitting in classes where they don’t do anything?

My other problem with this arrangement is that these kids really can’t even DO that much as an aide. They aren’t allowed to go into the teachers’ lounge/workrooms, so they can’t make copies for them or anything of that nature. Since they are minors and not employees of the school system, the teacher can’t put the aide in charge of students in the way that they could with an adult aide (ie, splitting students into groups and having the aide direct the students in an activity). I suppose they could hang posters or student work around the room, but that would be distracting to the other students in the class. The only thing that I, as a sub, have ever used a student aide for is to take the paper copy of the attendance down to the office. Regular teachers don’t even use them for that because they do their attendance on the computer. Why make the teacher (and, for that matter, the administration) responsible for a student who, in reality, has absolutely no need to be there in the first place?

One of the big things that we as students in my high school looked forward to was being able to get out early our senior year. It was one of the special privileges that made being a senior that much more awesome, and it served as a motivator to do well in your classes so that you could pass them and have enough credits under your belt to get that extra hour and a half or so of sweet freedom every day (or every other day) your senior year. The school district where I work is doing a BIG program to push for 100% graduation, and I think that any reward or incentive that can be used to help reach that goal should be implemented. My hope is that in the coming years, the school district will realize that allowing seniors the privilege of getting out early is a smart move for everyone involved.

Gender Confusion

As I may have mentioned before, my full-time job nowadays is working as a substitute teacher for the school system where I live. I’ve decided to write more about my experiences in other people’s classrooms, because there’s definitely some amusement value there. I shall begin this endeavor with today’s post, about my experience as a 6th grade math teacher.

Today, my adventures as a substitute teacher landed me for 1/2 a day in a 6th grade math classroom. I came in around 10:45 and spoke to the regular teacher about what I was supposed to be doing. Since this was her planning time, there were no students in the room yet, so I took the extra 10-15 minutes I had before 5th period to go over her notes and identify all the worksheets and activities I would need for the lessons. Fifth period went smoothly, and while 6th period was significantly more talkative, that class went ok too. Then 7th period came in. These were the advanced kids, so I was expecting them to be quieter and well-behaved, but they had other plans. We were going over the homework and a student in the back raised their hand to ask me a question. I was having trouble hearing the student over the noise of their fellow classmates, so I raised my voice and said “Guys, one of your classmates asked a question, and you’re being so loud I can’t even hear him! Stop talking and listen!” At this point every kid in the class says “She’s a girl! Her name’s Brooke!”* I thought they were referring to the student in front of the one who asked the question, and I said, “No, I was talking about the boy in the back in the red shirt,” to which they all responded “Yeah. She’s a girl.” I could have died. Mentally I was cursing the floor for not swallowing me up. I was so embarrassed, and I apologized to my androgynous student, and tried to move on with the class, but the students continued to giggle and whisper about this for the rest of the class. Fortunately we were near the end of the period, so we only had about 10 minutes left.

In my defense, this student LOOKED and SOUNDED like a (6th grade) boy. She had short, curly red hair and was wearing a red Fox Racing shirt and somewhat-skinny jeans (all kids wear those kind of jeans, regardless of gender), and she had a black Under Armour backpack. Her voice was not particuarly feminine and girly-sounding. And, since these kids were in 6th grade, there were no, shall we say, “physical developments” that would lead me to believe I was speaking to a girl. To make matters worse, the class role I had was outdated and she wasn’t listed on it, so I hadn’t called her name at the beginning of class. Had I done that, I might have remembered that her name was Brooke and could have potentially avoided some embarrassment for myself and this student. Though, as someone married to a man named Lindsay, I know firsthand that names can be androgynous, too.

*Name changed