I Was A Pretty Disengaged High School Student

After spending a joyous weekend this past fall, at my 30th high school reunion, I reflected on the fact that I was a pretty disengaged high school student, and I don’t mean just a little disengaged either. I loved so many of my high school experiences, but I was generally disinterested in what was happening inside many of my classrooms.

The main reason I maintained semi-decent grades was to meet the athletic eligibility requirements. I once missed weeks of a particular class because I didn’t like what we  were covering—I didn’t think it was relevant. After realizing it was too late to drop the class, I eventually returned.

When I have shared this with some of my students over the years, they are shocked. What? Our teacher? Our principal?

Yes, your teacher and your principal. It’s my experience as a student that plays a large part in my drive to ensure my students have a different experience in high school than I did. Of course, I want my students to respond to disengagement differently than I did, but I also believe it is our responsibility to provide them with a different experience – one that is engaging.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved my high school, just not the learning part. Our high school had many of the trappings of a good high school. Our school boasted the legacy of alumni like Will Smith, Olympian Jon Drummond, and Wilt Chamberlain. We won district and city championships in athletics, and although it was a neighborhood school, it also drew super talented students from across the city through magnet programming .

My school, like many neighborhood schools, also held a lot of family and community pride due to generational legacy. My friends and relatives attended my school, and my grandfather was in our school’s first graduating class.

So, plenty of joy and pride from one angle.

But, being challenged and motivated academically was often lacking in several of my classrooms.

Today, I frequently poll students about their experience in my school, because it haunts me to think that some students are having the exact same experience that I had. I can’t live with that, so I probe students about their experience and opinions. How would you rate your school from 1-10? What would make it go up by two points?

Students are insightful and honest. They have given feedback about lesson relevancy, schedules and courses, which staff members makes them feel whole, valued, and challenged, even the lunches. Students help us make staffing decisions, sitting in demonstration lessons and providing feedback

I am looking for how students feel they are treated, if they feel valued and if they believe their experience with us is helping them to address the problems they want to solve. Although I ask them directly, our students also complete anonymous surveys twice per year. Here are some of the statements students are asked to rate us on.

This is a good school to attend

I am excited to come to class

My teachers care about me

My teachers explain things clearly

My teachers notice my good work

My teachers work with me until I understand

In retrospect, the gap between what was happening inside of the class and my disengagement was typically lack of relevance to my reality and what I viewed as important. While I grew up with activist parents, my high school teachers didn’t speak about that or act like the teachers I had from kindergarten through eighth grade. And, while my favorite pastime was to read history books that included the Autobiographies of  Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X, Roots, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Black Panther Party, etc., issues addressed within the books in my home library were never broached in my high school history classes.

My colleagues and I strove to ensure community and classroom were never separated. Our team helped students make the connections between tobacco’s industry continued legacy of oppression, from the relationship between cash crops and enslavement to the bombardment of advertisements in Black neighborhoods – their neighborhood. I was in the community and invited community members inside our classrooms. Friends, my former principal from Nidhamu Sasa, and countless others would come to our school and have chat and chew sessions with our students.

We used Animal Farm to discuss group dynamics and distractions from goals, we used Things Fall Apart to address colonialism, its lingering impact, and the tension of operating from a space of anger and fear. We used the work of Dr. Molefi Asante to research the origins of Black people and their massive contributions to civilization, we used excerpts from The Bluest Eye to tackle colorism. We used Jane Elliot’s Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes exercise to experience discrimination.  

I was keen to not only educate students, but to engage them in preparing themselves for the world we needed them to help change. While liberation is inextricably linked to education,  I knew I was not my students’ liberator. But, I took the role of teacher as an activist would, using the classroom as a platform to help affect change.

Today, I view student engagement as a crucial measuring stick in determining our school’s effectiveness and relevance. As a school leader the guiding question of my work has to be, when our students reflect on their years with us, what will they say their academic and social experiences were? Did these school experiences prepare them for the world we handed down to them?

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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