“When students graduate from your high school, are they prepared for adult life?”
This is a frequent question we hear from parents in interviews. Usually, this question implies readiness for college. I agree, for most teenagers, college is the number one expected step after high school. I will write in a different blog series about the rigorous academic training our students receive in math, the natural and social sciences, engineering, languages, arts and other fields. This training goes further, wider and deeper than what is usually offered in conventional high schools.
In this blog series I will tell you how we deal with a blind spot prevailing in conventional education. High school teachers, parents and teenagers tend to conflate preparation for adulthood with academic preparation for college.
Many college graduates confront a tough truth when they join the adult world. The conventional wisdom just a generation ago was to simply get a college degree; the field of study was less important. But this no longer is wise. Even “a practical” degree is not always enough to land that good job and pay off those burdensome college loans. Facing this unpleasant reality, young adults learn, too often at high cost, that there are other practical skills that are crucial in the very fluid and unstable 21st century world. Unfortunately, these skills are rarely taught at high school or even at college.
At Roadstead Montessori High School we believe that learning adult life skills is a matter of gaining real world experience. It is not something one can just learn in the classroom with lectures, tests, term papers and presentations. And this is where we are drastically different from conventional high schools. We think that real world experience comes only from…real world experience.
What do we mean by real world experience? It is these seemingly minor functional capabilities that we develop in numerous mundane interactions with other people in our surroundings. These interactions often pass unnoticed. But when we pay close attention to them, we see that they might make or break our relationships at our workplace, social circles and home.
Grace and Courtesy
Once a week we walk from school to the Slover Library—the main city public library located in Downtown Norfolk. Our students conduct primary historical research and participate in a history research methods seminar at the library’s Sargeant Memorial Collection (SMC) — a repository of local historical and genealogical sources.
We go as a group, so the students need to synchronize their pace of walking. No one can run ahead and leave slower peers behind. We don’t jaywalk, but cross streets only at crosswalks and creative crosswalks painted professionally. Students know not to jump into the traffic but cross only when the road is clear, drivers stopped to yield or traffic light is green (and no car is passing). Our walk passes through a couple of historical residential neighborhoods (Ghent and West Freemason) and a main Downtown area (Granby St.). Like typical teenagers, our students like to goof around during the walk. However, they learn that being in public means being aware that other people witness their behavior. Yelling, cursing, expressing aggression to each other or showing rudeness to strangers is not only improper but also dangerous. We might lose face both as individuals and as a school community. People might also react in unexpected aggressive ways.
It took me years to understand that impoliteness or rudeness in public is a way for teenagers to express their intimidation by the adult world. Spending much of their time in protected environments, such as school, home or after school activities, teenagers experience the world outside these spaces as chaotic. It does not matter if they already look like young adults, if they drive or if they have a job. Still, walking in the city as a school makes them feel like children lost in this big, complex and fast-paced adult world that has way too many hidden rules.
A teacher always walks with the students. They do not need someone to tell them what to do. A silent adult presence just calms them down. It helps them feel protected. Relieved from the child-like intimidation, the students take the time to observe the urban landscape. It is very exciting, very intriguing. We pass by historical houses, previous ship docks, the USS Wisconsin Museum. We pass also by the Downtown campus of Tidewater Community College, which is surrounded by trendy cafes and restaurants.
Our walk passes through a couple of doorways. One could go through and then allow the door to close. However, we are a group. If one student just lets go of the door, it slams in the face of the next student who walks behind. There is an instinctive facial expression of a door slamming right in front you. It reads as grave offense.
I have seen how learning to hold the door for others has spawned an entirely new mindset. Teenagers are forward-looking people. They are usually resistant to looking behind, both figuratively and literally. All they want is to be done and to move on. Turning back when holding doors is for many an “aha moment.” Yes, if I don’t want others to slam the door in my face, I need to look back and see that I don’t do this to others. The deeper level of this lesson is how to become aware of the repercussions of our actions, that is, what reality we leave behind after we got what we needed.
The moment we walk into the library, each student and teacher makes eye contact with the librarians and says “hello.” Before we leave, we shake hands with the head librarian, who instructs our students. We say “thank you, see you next week.” On the way out, we make eye contact again with the librarians and say “thank you, goodbye.” This routine is not limited only to the Slover Library. We behave in the same manner at all our other off campus work-study locations.
The goal of this short example is to show that grace and courtesy means more than being polite. It is the attitude with which we grasp the order of things around us. It is also the ability to cultivate dignity by accomplishing independently small tasks expected from humans in society. Young Montessori students are introduced to grace and courtesy from toddler age with many practical life lessons: blowing their nose, washing hands, buttoning their shirts, eating with utensils, tying shoelaces, keeping a tidy work environment, saying “please,” “sorry,” “thank you” etc.
Dignity allows children to develop a compassionate attitude toward everything outside themselves: people, animals, plants, objects and the physical space. All of us have needs. And all of us try to satisfy these needs by taking from others. The question is, what sort of taking is it? Do we expect that the world only gives and I only take? Or do we expect reciprocity, I give so that I shall be given?
We did not invent this formula of reciprocity—“give so that you shall be given.” It appears in many human wisdoms since ancient times. In a narrowly selfish environment, one makes the effort only to grow one’s own share with no regard to others’ interests. This is a lose-lose situation. One’s interests are always under threat, which breeds hostility that, in turn, drives people to feel humiliated. No one likes to live under threat. No one also likes to feel humiliated. In an environment in which people look for opportunities to give each other, one’s interests are protected by all. This is a win-win situation, since people can live safely in an atmosphere that nurtures dignity.
How do we instill this idea in our teenagers? We create life skill lessons that resemble very much those that are taught to younger students. However, we take into account that teenagers, unlike little children, are preoccupied with their position in society. To satisfy this need, we structure the lessons both at school as well as in public and private locations off campus. Seamlessly, the students take many practical lessons in grace and courtesy on the way to and from these locations as well as during their work time alongside adult professionals.
And this is the real world experience that comes from the grace and courtesy lesson of “give so that you shall be given.” All our work-study locations are part of the adult world. They are either public institutions or private businesses. The adults, who collaborate there with us, are not teachers. They are either employees or business owners, who expect that we would serve the interests of their workplace. We were invited to work at the Slover Library because our students function as research assistants. They transcribe handwritten archival documents and, in return, learn how to use paper and digital databases. (I will write about this historical research project in a separate blog entry. Stay tuned also for more about the work our students accomplish in the other locations.)
We are far from being a financially rich school. We do not pay with money for the weekly work-study at the library. Our students are given invaluable professional instruction for the help they give with the transcription of primary documents. Our students feel welcome at the Slover Library not only because they do highly useful work, but also because they make the environment more pleasant just with their positive attitude, good manners and friendliness.
Our students love going to the library. They see it as an integral part of school. By behaving with grace and courtesy in this and all other adult worlds, they not only cultivate dignity but also feel empowered, meaningful and valuable. They learn in practice this unspoken adult life skill, the skill of reciprocity: if you go out of your way to be useful to others, others will go out of their way to be useful to you.