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School Stories

Our Students’ Experience of School

I posted a hypothetical and pretty depressing example of a day in the life of our students. In response I almost immediately received the following from Stephanie (reposted with her permission).

To Any & All:

I am a product of the generation that created the dilemma our education system is currently facing. We were the guinea pigs for No Child Left Behind. We did what we had to do to survive with little regard for the students that were destined to follow in our footsteps. For this, I offer my sincerest apologies.

As a child, I had lofty goals for myself. I wanted to be a lawyer and move far away from my small town in Jersey where few make it out. As the youngest of three girls, I saw early on the effect the public high school had on my sisters. At the tender age of eleven, I decided I did not want that for myself. From then on, every decision I made about my life was calculated. With one decision, my childhood vanished. I set my sights on going to a private high school that sent 99% of their graduates to college. At this point, it was sink or swim. There was no looking back.

I was accepted to one of the best private schools in my area. When the time came to apply for college, I was considered a “well-rounded” student. I had a great GPA, high SAT score, was a multiple sport athlete, a member of numerous clubs and volunteered outside of school. In the eyes of any college admissions office, I was an ideal candidate. But not mentioned in my applications was all that I had sacrificed in the name of higher education. High school felt like a means to an end (the end being college). As a college student, I would no longer be under the thumb of teachers on power trips, a dean who handed out detention for our shirts not being tucked in, and parents who made sure my after-school schedule was always filled. I thought of college as my savior from my chaotic life.

College is where my life began. I feel as though I traded in my childhood for four more years of education. I remember constantly thinking in middle school how my parents did not understand all that I was sacrificing. They were looking at my life from an adult’s perspective. My parents believed that hard work and plenty of time and effort were necessary to achieve success in life. Family vacations took a backseat to softball tournaments every weekend in summer; invitations to friends’ birthday parties were thrown in the trash in order to allow enough time to research and write a term paper; and time with my friends had to be scheduled in advance, but with an opt-out clause should something my parents deemed more important come up. Suffice it to say that I had little control over the schedule of my life.

The catalyst for this letter was a conversation I had a few weeks ago with my oldest sister, a teacher. My niece just started first grade and my sister was complaining to me about my niece’s Monday night schedule: some homework, followed by soccer practice, then a sit down family dinner and ending with more homework just in time for bed. It should be mentioned that my sister considered the homework assignment that night “pointless” for a first grader. Nevertheless, I wanted my sister to look at school through a student’s viewpoint, rather than an educator’s or parent’s perspective. In many ways, I am grateful for my parents pushing me to work harder. They wanted the best for their children, but I honestly do not think this is how they would want me to look back on my childhood, or lack thereof. There were plenty of times I wanted to through my hands up and jump off the roller coaster, but my desire to fulfill my childhood dreams kept me going.

So, here I am at the crossroads of my life. I am a 25 year old Ivy League graduate currently living in Los Angeles and applying to law school. My four years in college were the best times of my life and was where I learned the most. Then I entered the workforce armed with a nice degree, plenty of internships under my belt, and a lifetime of trying to please others. I must say, I do look good on paper. But then reality settles in, and I begin to see how that roller coaster has never slowed down. I want my niece to have the opportunity to fulfill her own dreams, but, more importantly, I do not want her to lose her childhood in the process. I will watch from the wings as she gets on her own roller coaster. I will offer advice and encouragement when I can. And I will happily do this, because she ultimately deserves better than what our education system is currently offering her.

Best of luck to our future leaders,


Stephanie’s experience of school is unfortunately common place. It makes me sad to think that even the students whom we would consider “successful” in school are going through this. No one should think of their child hood as wasted.

My recommendation for our next podcast is that we should all sit down and interview someone affected by the No Child Left Behind legacy and record the interview. More young adults need to have their story told.


About David Wees

David Wees is a Canadian teacher with 7 years international experience. He started his career in inner city NYC in a failing school. He met his wife in the spring of 2005 and together they moved to London, England where David taught in a small private school which was David’s first exposure to the International Baccalaureate curriculum. London was too expensive, even compared to NYC, so after 2 more years they moved on to Bangkok, Thailand where David taught for 2 years. David has co-authored a textbook for IB Mathematics, and has his Masters degree in Educational Technology. He is now in Vancouver, Canada, working as a learning specialist in technology. He blogs regularly at


5 thoughts on “Our Students’ Experience of School

  1. I am grateful for Stephanie allowing us to read this letter. It is sad and yet hopeful. She is still young and aware of what she aches for to continue in her journey towards wholeness. The struggle will be working against the habits deeply ingrained in her, those that will continually push her to minimize that which she values but does not allow room for in her life, the values she learned while growing up–play is trivial; friends are an option, not a necessity; what society values is more important that what you value, etc.

    I wish her the best of luck and hope she continues to connect with people with whom she can share her authentic voice.

    On a related note, while on a quick afternoon trip to Boston this past week I saw banners hanging over Kenmore Square that read, “Kids are People Too.” When I looked it up on-line this is what I found,

    With hope,

    Posted by Adam Burk | September 29, 2010, 6:35 am
  2. David, Thank you for this, and thank you Stephanie. I have unfortunately read many many essays like this by my own students, who are just Stephanie’s age.

    Do we all know the book, “Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students (Denise Clark Pope, 2001)?

    and the now released Race To Nowhere?

    The dilemma in many student’s lives now, having come through this recent cauterizing era, I find, is making meaning out of what happened and deciding what they’d want for their own kids (as Stephanie says, about her niece). We value conventional success so much in our culture, and in many families, that to back away from that value system feels like stepping into another universe. (Deciding to fail, as one of my students said.) For many, there don’t seem to be other ways of “showing that you matter.” Also, my students wrestle with the fact unless they have the degrees, the internships, the test scores, they can never get to positions of power to change the dynamic.

    Grief, mourning, admitting what was lost, is the first step of activism?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 29, 2010, 9:55 am
  3. Stephanie’s letter makes me think about how we define success in the United States. If we get there faster, make more money, and have kids who follow in our footsteps do we feel like we’ve accomplished what society wants for us?

    What does it mean to be a successful adult? What fulfills us? What makes us feel whole? What makes us feel like we are confident, capable adults? What experiences help us acknowledge a life well lived? What IS a life well lived? And if we can define it, is that what people really want?

    It saddens me to hear about Stephanie writing term papers rather than going on a family vacation. Surely that latter would be a more memorable experience to look back on, rather than all the hoop jumping she did. Sometimes I think kids will jump through that final hoop and fall flat—exhausted. Means to an end…

    Recently, at an alternative education conference I attended, a speaker noted that a high profile executive had been home schooled. “He never attended formal schooling, and still became CEO of Whole Foods,” the speaker proudly exclaimed. I turned my head, thinking, is this the final goal for everyone, no matter how they get there? I wonder. (It might not have been Whole Foods, but you get the point).

    Thank you for this story, David, and the important ideas you’ve brought to the table.

    Posted by jengroves | September 29, 2010, 12:06 pm
  4. too many conversations talking people off the edge.

    we need to realize.. the definition of success is a personal thing.
    it’s a personal thing.

    school can no longer pretend to know what’s best. developing countries have one up on us here.

    we need to pay more attention to truth… pay more attention to things that matter… not matters that once ruled.

    we need to notice people.

    Posted by monika hardy | October 4, 2010, 3:44 am


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