Why I Don’t Teach Adult Skills Every 18 year old Should Have

Recently this post has been going around.  Julie Lythcott-Haims a former dean of students from Stanford and author of the book How to Raise an Adult explains what skills every 18 year old should arrive to campus with, and laments the fact that they do not have them. I wholeheartedly agree. Students should graduate from High School with the ability to manage their own schedule, be able to talk to strangers, cope with ups and downs, know how to take risks and every other thing the article says college freshmen should be able to do. I think it is important to raise kids who can go out into the world with the ability to handle their own autonomy. But I don’t teach any of the life skills that my students graduate without. In fact, I often  participate in behaviors that hinder in the development of important skills.

Why would I participate in behaviors that I know will hurt the development of my students in the long run?

The quick answer: I have to. The way the system is set up forces teachers to forgo the long term development of their students for the quick and dirty of testing and graduating. There is less and less time to teach things that aren’t on the test and more and more pressure to make sure the kids pass those tests. This is true for a lot of reasons, but after nine years of teaching I think the main culprits are graduation rates, testing, and a strong emphasis on standards

Graduation Rates: Here is the deal, school rankings are based largely on graduation rates. With good reason I suppose, if you can’t get kids to graduate, then what are you even doing? Isn’t that what school is for? BUT kids who fail too many classes have an uphill battle to graduate on time. If a kid needs 4 years of English to graduate (and they do) then they need to pass each year. If they don’t the student who already isn’t so great at the subject has to take summer school or two English classes simultaneously. If a student falls behind it is really hard and sometimes expensive (summer school costs money) to get them caught up.

So yes, I extend deadlines, give kids one more chance, don’t make them face the consequences of their actions. I have to. The law says the kids need to graduate or the school is punished. The kids have to pass my class in order to graduate. If they fail, my school fails and no one wants to be taken over by the state. They can’t even write testing procedures that are coherent, they sure as hell won’t be able to run a school. My kids can’t learn the lessons that failure teaches best because the school cannot afford for them to learn the lessons. Failure is too expensive for everyone, even if it is the best teacher.

Testing: If it isn’t on the test, it isn’t a priority. That should not be news as Art and Music curriculum has been slashed since the beginning of No Child Left Behind, but it may surprise you how many life skills a high school student used to pick up on the way through school, have also been marginalized because no one teaches it on a test.

It doesn’t surprise me my students come to college not knowing how to talk to strangers, or have a conversation about a problem they are having. My interviewing and verbal communication unit got left in my college teacher training with my high heeled shoes and the promise that I would never yell. You do what you have to do, and what I have to do is get my kids to pass that test. The amazing and complicated projects you still remember from your high school days where you solved problems, worked in groups, learned you loved to be in front of or behind a video camera, and finally had a chance to talk to that cute boy you got paired with are likely no longer in the curriculum. It doesn’t directly impact a test score, even if that thing did impact you for the rest of your life. There just isn’t time.

Standards: Don’t get me wrong. I am actually for a national standardized curriculum. With an interconnected world we need to ensure we all have a baseline of information, but we shouldn’t shackle every moment of instruction to these standards. If a kid brings up black lives matter in math class, the teacher should be able to talk about it. If a kid does something dumb in my class, we should get to have a ‘teachable moment’ about that. I shouldn’t be worried that someone with a clipboard will come in and ask me which standard is being taught.

There is no standard about, how everyone feels as awkward as you feel and you actually aren’t alone. There is no standard about why it is important to be kind to your classmates. There is no standard about death, or money, or power, things our kids are dying to talk about and themes that are present in our literature. I used to spend a lot of time learning what my students thought. We would talk, we would think, I would push back. They would show me funny YouTube videos and I would introduce them to the Beatles. Now I spend a lot of time teaching them the standards.

High school teachers know our kids need these skills, and we are certainly aware they do not possess them. (Why is your mom emailing me about your grade when you are sitting in my class not making eye contact?) We too are concerned about how these kiddos will function in the world. But our hands are tied to the tests, to the standards, to the ratings. until we are freed we won’t be able to make it better. We will try very hard not to make it worse.




7 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Teach Adult Skills Every 18 year old Should Have

      • They used to have to take what essentially boils down to a College 101 course that taught those skills, just in case they hadn’t learned them yet, but we’ve crammed that into one three-hour session on welcome week.

  1. Reading the Stanford dean’s post made me realize that we didn’t do such a bad job with our own kids. They certainly weren’t great at all the things on the 18-year-old list when they were 18, but they weren’t strangers to them either.

    As far as all the many kids I taught, I’m with you, Abby. I did what I could squeeze in, but it wasn’t usually anything like enough.

  2. I’m glad I was able to teach before the era of graduation and end of course tests- you are right. These tests have drained the inquiry and critical thinking and exploratory elements right out of the classroom and much has been irretrievably lost.

  3. Yes. Oh my gosh.

    My school has a range of things in place to try to teach these skills (advisory periods, etc.) but the thing about adult skills is A) they’re hard to teach to 11-15 year-olds, B) they feel artificial when we teach them in isolation, and C) in order to make our classrooms function behaviorally, we end up just doing a lot of these things (supplying all paper and pencils, giving make-up assignments for kids who sat in class and did nothing for weeks, storing their folders with their work…).

    And then there are the four required district tests for EVERY subject area in addition to state testing (recently dropped from EIGHT).

    The most heartbreaking part: when students say “Let’s hurry up and read this so we can answer the questions.”

    They’re losing the joy of reading. And I’m heartbroken that they think we read just to answer a handful of multiple choice questions.

  4. Very well-stated!!! Education has spiraled into a very sad state of affairs that certainly does not prepare students for “real” life.

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