2 Uncomfortable High School Truths

Funny things happen when high school teachers talk to each other. I say this because high schools divide their staff into subject departments meaning they have nothing to talk about when they meet except maybe the football or Netflix. An English teacher understands that any Math teacher won’t be interested in their ‘very different role in the school’ and so a question like “have you seen Black Mirror on Netflix yet?” becomes a typical opening line between high school teachers.

This professional isolation leads to amazing ignorance about what other teachers do and teach in the school. An ignorance that is bubbling to the surface in my High School as we ask subjects to integrate their teaching and learning. This ignorance is one of the uncomfortable truths that lead to many systemic problems in education that are so normalised by now that they simply get ignored.

True Stories

I thought I’d use student quotes to run through some of these uncomfortable truths.

Truth 1: Lessons are for killing … hidden repeats

“We just thought … Great! This will kill another 3 hours of lessons!” – grade 9 boy (2019)

One subject department decides that showing students the film “The Martian” with actor Matt Damon will allow them to highlight key subject learnings. In March, the students spend Monday’s, Wednesday’s, and Thursday’s lesson watching the movie. In July, not knowing about its previous showing, another subject decides to use the same movie with the same students for different learnings. The film starts and the students nudge each other whispering ‘shhhh, don’t say anything, this will kill 3 lessons.”

This is one of 10s of examples that have cropped up as we build a full picture of the programme across departments. Believe it or not, we have found different subjects teaching the same material (for different reasons) to the same students at the same time, and still the children say nothing!

The issue here is not simply one of better coordination but one about the average high school student’s mindset towards formal education. If the opportunity arises, killing time is preferable to actually doing something. I remember this mindset from my own school days but the system continues regardless.

Truth 2: Home life decides your grade

“We’re not one of those families” – grade 8 student in trouble for misbehaving (2018)

I’ve talked about this a few times but success in any kind of school assessment is driven considerably by one’s willingness to conform and “play the game” and NOT ability. To develop this willingness requires your life to surround you with clues and daily reminders that it’s a game worth playing and you can probably win. The stats around the world show that if your parents went to university, the concept of going to university is normalised in the home and seen as a given. This makes ‘playing the school game’ something that seems worth doing and thus decides how students behave, set minimum goals and perform.

If you’re a teenager and don’t have examples in your own life of successful results from playing ‘the game’, it’s harder to see yourself as ‘one of those students’. When you add to this the bank of mum and dad and the ability for them to support you when you get stuck, it’s easier to have a go at things, knowing there will be a safety net to catch you when you stall. I have worked with many teens who from day one arrive from a life that seems to clearly indicate that they are not a player in this ‘game.’ A teacher with 30 new students in the room and a heavily packed programme to get through is not resourced to undo the impact of every minute of a less resourced student. After all, in the conventional system, lesson plans are written regardless of who is going to turn up. Students resourced well by home have an advantage that compounds with each hour of each school day.


I must stress that both the first two truths highlight that a primary driver for disengagement at school is the fragmentation of the school day and home life is the primary driver of any success. Yes, there are rare stories of a teacher making a difference with a child but overall, the impersonal and standardised approach taken by the system makes it both difficult to connect with and make a real difference to inspire most children.  It’s what the system reduces students to when shifting randomly between isolated teachers who traditionally have seen no need to coordinate programmes. The system is so fixed, most students understand the sort of success they are likely to aim for and achieve before they start based on their home life relative to others around them. Killing time always becomes a priority over using it.  It really is time to align school systems with the increasing control young people have in their personal lives. My question is how long do they have to wait?