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Letter to My Students

Letter to My Students


I know I complain about students a lot but yeah, there are some good kids. There are wonderful, sensitive, thoughtful, kind kids who give me back a bit of faith in humanity. Unfortunately, in my experience, these kids are way too hard on themselves. While teachers are doing everything they can think of to get some kids to care about their future, these kids hear the message loud and clear and translate it into anxiety and fear.

We apply so much pressure to kids these days, as though every test and every decision in high school makes or breaks their entire future. And while it has no effect on many, it sends the wrong message to the ones who are really listening. After a few years of having the same pep talk with my classes, I decided to write down my thoughts and hand them out instead. Perhaps you might want to share this with your students or kids.

We apply so much pressure to kids, as though every test and every mistake in school makes or breaks their entire future. And while it has no effect on many, it sends the wrong message to the ones who are really listening.

Dear Students,

Every year the guidance counselors come into my classroom to give a presentation to my 11th graders. For about 45 minutes they talk about standardized test scores, college applications, GPA, class rank, etc. By the time they leave, most students are on the verge of having an anxiety attack, and who could blame them? They have just been fed the terrifying idea that any possibility of future success depends on what they have accomplished up until that point, and how they will convey those accomplishments to colleges. Students are also made to feel that they have to choose what they want to do for the rest of their lives within the next year or two.

They are not the only ones filled with anxiety. So many stories are racing through my mind, and I feel the responsibility to tell the students the truth. The lecture I end up giving is exhausting, so I decided to try to write it down. But where to begin?

Let me start by saying that in no way does what you have done in high school have to determine how successful you will be, how much money you will make, or how happy you will be as an adult. Can it? Sure. Lots of students excel in school and go on to very successful college careers and rewarding jobs. But many others do not do well in school because of their home life, the absence of maturity, lack of a good public school education, or anything else, yet still they go on to have a successful adult life.

Quote that reads - "In no way does what you have done in high school have to determine how successful you will be, how much money you will make or how happy you will be as an adult."

Take my brother, for example. He is very smart and has a quick mind. He is excellent at leading a team and arguing a point. He can easily excel at academics if he chooses to.

But in high school, he didn’t care, because he couldn’t see how school was a path to get to where he wanted to be. Besides, he was the lead singer of a band that was going to make it. The band broke up. He went to a state school for one semester and dropped out. He was lost. He had no idea what he was passionate about.

He worked a few retail jobs and went to community college where he was lucky enough to have professors who saw the enormous potential in him and pushed him to excel. He got straight A’s and transferred to a highly-ranked university to study philosophy. Our family was adamantly against this. They thought it was an unrealistic and useless thing to major in. My brother chose to study what he loved and graduated at the top of his class.

Then he went to a prestigious law school to study international law and eventually landed a job at one of the nation’s leading law firms. Any of his teachers from high school would have been surprised by his success. He showed no signs of this back then. But then again, no one really tried to see past how he presented himself to the world.

Boy looking sad sitting at a desk piled with books.

You don’t have to be good at academics to be successful. My best friend never did well in school and hated it. She went to many different colleges, off and on, for years, and never graduated. She was always interested in fashion and had a unique style. She started to volunteer to help with various fashion shoots and runway shows and eventually she developed a reputation and online following.

Then she got paying jobs that sent her all over the world to style photo shoots. She is now the lead stylist for a luxury department store where I can’t afford a pair of socks. She makes three times as much money as me, and I have a Master’s degree from one of the top ten universities in the country. (Her husband is a graphic designer who makes four times as much money as me with only a community college education.)

There are also many people who dedicate their whole lives to doing well in school, but it doesn’t matter in the end. The valedictorian of my graduating high school class got full scholarships to wherever he wanted to go. He studied music (his passion) and became a music teacher. He was laid off and couldn’t get another job. He is now a very unhappy travel agent.

A friend of mine from high school went to a very distinguished university and graduated with over $120,000 in loans. She became a school psychologist, and most of her paycheck goes towards paying those loans. She likes her job but could have gotten the same degree for a fraction of the price.

In no way does what you do in high school have to determine how successful you will be, how much money you will make or how happy you will be as an adult.

I hope that these examples illustrate the diverse nature of success in our society and the countless roads that can get you there. It is often less about grades, and more about hard work, determination, and creativity. After you graduate high school, no one will ever ask you for your SAT scores or what your GPA was. I cannot even remember what I got on the SAT, but I know it wasn’t noteworthy. Don’t let anyone make you feel that your options are limited because of the past. Every day is a new opportunity to completely redesign your life. I really believe this.

And please, for the love of god, don’t try to figure out what you will do with the rest of your life right now! How could anyone know what they will want to do as an adult at 17 years old? That is absurd. Just follow your passion and the road will lead you where you are meant to go. Take the subject or topic that is the most exciting, the easiest, or most exciting, and take more of those classes! The path will reveal itself.

Don’t get me wrong. School is important. I’m a teacher. Obviously, I feel that way. But you can still take advantage of educational opportunities at any time in your life, and every school has opportunities that can lead to where you want to be.

So relax. If you don’t have any idea what you are doing right now, that is completely normal! Okay?

Quote that reads - The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents but should instead rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth.

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Jane Morris

Jane Morris is the pen name of an ex-teacher who would really like to tell you more about herself but is worried awful administrators will come after her for spilling their dirty little secrets. Jane has taught English for over 15 years in a major American city. She received her B.A. in English and Secondary Education from a well-known university and her M.A. in Writing and Literature from an even fancier (and more expensive) university. As a professional queen of commiseration turned published author, Jane’s foremost passion in life is to make people laugh through the tears.

She has written several highly acclaimed books unpacking the reality of teaching and life inside the school system. You can view her full library of works here.

Lisa Donald

Monday 12th of June 2023

I really, really appreciate this. I did well enough in high school, went to 2 universities for a total of 4 years and left with no diploma because I probably would have ended my life had I stayed. I am a moderately successful cellist (who didn’t need the degree but did need the training) but academia was never “it” for me. I DEEPLY wish I had read your letter as a high school or college student because I felt like such a failure for such a long time. Even now I feel like the whole world is set up for people who think differently (read: better) than I do, but maybe if I had someone helping me understand the vastness of possibilities I would have better trusted my creativity, rather than feel it was a liability. My biggest take away from school experiences was to learn to trust my instincts. Had I done that, I likely wouldn’t have gone to college right away, or at all, and I would’ve trusted that was okay. The quote you included at the end is so, so real. Thank you for taking the time to put these words down! They are helping my wounded, calloused heart.