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5 Life Skills Schools Don't Teach

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I love what I teach, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. There is definitely something to be said for scholarly endeavor, and for instilling in students a lifelong passion for the liberal arts. All the same, it’s unfortunate that, by comparison, schools place so little stock in teaching kids other highly relevant life skills.  After all, it’s great to cultivate critical thinking skills through core academics, but as educators, let’s be honest with ourselves. We need to seriously rethink whether a turgid emphasis on scholarly pursuit alone really prepares students to prosper in the real world.

Here is my top-five list of what schools and teachers fail to do.

We fail at teaching students how to market themselves

If you think “marketing” is a dirty word, and that educators have no business teaching students how to do this, you need to reconsider your role. In today’s digital age, it may be true that plenty of students know how to create digital media, but too few know how to produce high-quality content, the kind that makes them stick out to not only college admission officers, but also potential employers. What does this involve? We need to teach and encourage students to post original, quality content to brand their unique identities in a sea of increasingly indistinguishable resumes—which are going the way of the typewriter. Last year, I encouraged a talented student-journalist to post his work on Pathbrite, an online electronic portfolio that showcases his diverse writing, broadcasting, and reporting talents. I am currently helping a talented student-photographer create her own site, which she will use to brand her creative identity. At the very least, I encourage all of my seniors to create a Linked-In page.

We fail at allowing students to concentrate deeply on a specific interest or passion

I know I’m not alone in trying to answer students asking, “How is learning this relevant for my life?” We might respond in a number of ways, the most common of which is that it helps strengthen one’s critical thinking and analytic skills. This may be quite true, but in my experience, fewer and fewer students are buying that as enough of a reason to devote years of study to any particular discipline. Instead, teachers need to do two things better. First, through whatever means necessary, we need to do a much better job of helping students identify their passions in life. It’s a shame that many go on from high school without ever knowing what they might love to pursue, even if they end up changing directions. The next step is figuring out a way to make learning math, science, English, history, and language more relevant to each individual student. I don’t have an easy answer for this, but we should consider allowing a student dead-set on pursuing art, for example, to delve deeper into that passion by forgoing an advanced science or English course.

We fail at encouraging students to fail, by harshly penalizing failure

Everything worthwhile I’ve learned in life, I’ve learned because of failure—and repeated failure at that. Too often, we penalize students too harshly for simply progressing through the learning cycle at different speeds. If the end goal is mastery, no matter the subject, why penalize a student for failing a chapter 1 test when she scores much better on the final? Does it really matter when that student displayed mastery throughout the course of the year, so long as she ultimately achieved mastery? How does this in any way reflect real-world expectations? In business, would a boss fire or penalize an employee for not understanding a concept right away? Perhaps, but that’s not somebody I would ever want to work for. It’s also unfair to hold students to expectations that, for the most part, aren’t reflected in how adults in the real world treat each other.

We fail at teaching financial management

In most schools, American history is a required course; “Financial Responsibility 101” should be, too.  I challenge all teachers of juniors and seniors to ask their students how comfortable or competent they feel with managing a credit card, balancing a checkbook, or paying taxes by themselves, right now, without any help from Mom or Dad. I would be shocked to learn that many soon-to-be high school graduates feel ready to discharge these crucial skills for living a responsible adult life. I’m not saying that learning Algebra or Calculus isn’t important (it certainly is), but not to the extreme of completely abandoning teaching students about financial management.

We fail at teaching basic repair and maintenance skills

I’m 30 years old, and I can’t even change a tire. I’m not alone. Many of my friends can’t either. And I have highly educated friends. We’ve grown too accustomed to relying on roadside assistance, but I’m screwed if I pop a tire in the middle of a dead zone. I’m also awful at putting together furniture, and I have absolutely no clue about how to complete basic home improvements. Certainly, I shoulder much of the blame. Nothing has stopped me from going out and learning about those things on my own. All the same, why wasn’t this a required course in school? Among all the useful things I learned in the classroom, I wish I had learned how to take care of my home. Today, I would be saving a nice chunk of change.

Concluding thoughts

I don’t mean to say that all schools are alike and that no school addresses any of these needs. I’m sure that some schools already do a terrific job with some of these categories. Still, across the board, a lot more work needs to be done.

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David Cutler is a dedicated independent school teacher at Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where he teaches United States History, United States Government, and Journalism. He also serves as Assistant Boys Cross Country Coach. Cutler is proud to act as a Teacher of the Future for the National Association of Independent Schools. Occasionally, he also writes about education for Edutopia and The Atlantic. Cutler attended Brandeis University as an undergraduate with a major in History and minors in Latin American Studies and Journalism. He holds an M.A. in Comparative History, also from Brandeis.

  • Guest
    Jay Wednesday, 29 March 2017

    I wish more people thought like you enough that this could become a reality. It's gotten to the point where I'm actually just planning to make a list of all the things I don't know and am going to try to learn how to do them over the summer. I think that that is the reason why going out into the "real" world is so scary to me. If I knew how to file taxes, pay mortgage and was more confident in fixing things around the house or with the car I would not be nearly as hesitant.
    Budgeting has never been an issue lucky enough for me though. The fact that things are taught in school that isn't relevant to what we will have to do when we pursue what we want is discouraging because all our lives we've been told to pursue what we want and to have a plan, yet when we do or at least have an idea there are so many restrictions telling us we need some other class when we want to do nothing but to throw ourselves into what we're passionate about.

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Guest Monday, 18 February 2019