Last Day of High School (For Now)

Today was my last day teaching high school seniors... at least for now. After a three year experiment that taught me a ton, I'm heading back to middle school. The previous two years were incredibly difficult for me, but this year, particularly this semester, was much better. I consistently enjoyed being with my students for the first time in years. Still, in education, when a position opens that you're thinking about, you take it now or may not get the chance again soon. I had the chance to go back to my previous school and get back to working with colleagues who have become my best friends. So, I took it.

People have asked if I'm excited to be moving. I keep saying the honest truth, "No, but I'm ready." I'm happy to be doing it, but would be lying if I said I wasn't worried. I haven't been in a middle school since our return from Lockdown and I know things are going to be very different. But, those stories are for the future, I want to reflect on today.

Because today was pretty amazing. 

A few days ago, students started asking me to sign their yearbooks. I think I may have signed 2 yearbooks total in the previous two years. My seniors just sort of disappeared after their last day. There was very little emotion on their part or on mine. Of course, I had some students I connected with, but not many. For someone who works hard on connections and experienced some very deep ones with students at the middle school, it was odd for me. 

As today came, I had signed far more than two and after today, I'd say I signed more than 20. These students valued my input and wanted to hear from me one last time. That's a great feeling, and it was a great day. In fact, it was my best day in three years of teaching seniors.

It started right off with first period. I gave the students a short goodbye and a little bit of future advice. Then, I opened it up. I told them I didn't have a plan for the day. We'd already done our final and submitted grades. I could put a movie on, fire up a game like Gimkit or whatever they wanted. Without hesitation one asked, "What's your favorite Disney movie Mr. Roughton?" I said, "Inside Out, not close." She said, "We should watch that then." 

That simple interaction showed me so much respect. Not only did it show that she saw me as a human being (recognizing my love of Disney), but she wanted *me* to enjoy the last day too. The other students joined right on and accepted the idea. So, Inside Out it was. We watched it, they enjoyed it.

In second period, the result was slightly different. They said, "We should watch the rest of Soul." Months ago, I had shown them two very short clips from the movie when I introduced human capital. A couple piped in saying "Yeah, I've never seen that one." Perfect. Again, they knew I'd love a Disney movie and they clearly had kept this one in their minds since it showed up in class. Many noted they had never seen it, but wanted to based on the small tease from earlier. Another sign of respect.

3rd period had started a movie the day before, so we continued that one. We had fun. Kids actually watched it and laughed. I got to laugh along with them. It felt familial for lack of a better word. The whole day had. That is the missing feeling that had me looking to go back to middle school to begin with. I wish it didn't take until the last day to get it, but I'm glad it came. At the end of the period, one of my quietest students came up and gave me a gift of Mountain Dew and a Milky Way (my favorites.) She also said, "There's a note in there for you too." I thanked her, but put the note aside until I had some free time.

At lunch my club kids thanked me and made sure I'd still be around for a few days. They've been very grateful and quite gracious since I told them a couple weeks ago. I got some time to read the note too. It was beautiful. The student said she also considered getting "something Disney" but didn't have time to. She noted how though she was often quiet in class, she loved being there saying it always made her day to come to class. Again, words I hadn't heard in years. She said I should keep teaching economics because I do it really well. Well shoot, she should have said that two weeks ago I guess!

For 5th period, the students asked me to play some Heads Up with them. (That silly cellphone game.) I told them I would after I finished a few grades. A few started playing without me. A few minutes later when I joined, 3 more came into the game with one saying, "Well, if Mr. Roughton is playing I wanna play!" That's one of those things I heard all the time teaching middle school. They always wanted to play whatever I was playing. It was great to hear it from jaded seniors.

After class, I spoke a few of the kids for a bit longer. One, very clearly emotional, said, "Thank you. You were the most real teacher I've ever had." Another jumped in saying, "Yeah, you worked so hard for us." The first, clearly trying to find the words, stumbled out, "You were like the only teacher that... that..." "Cared?" I offered, half-jokingly. "Yes! You actually cared!" While I doubt their other teachers didn't care, I knew what she meant. She meant that I cared enough to push them to be better. This particular young lady was often tardy earlier in the year and I called her out on it, knowing she could be better. The next day she said, "You called my mom!?" "Yes. You know my policy. Just stop being late." 

She stopped being late. (Well, mostly.) She didn't get mad at me, or at least, didn't stay mad at me. She recognized that I wasn't being a jerk. I was demanding better from her. That clearly stuck. She ended our quick conversation saying, "You were my best teacher."

6th period was a little different. I spent most of the period talking to just two students. I'm not even entirely sure how it happened. One pulled a chair up to my desk and the other was already nearby and we just talked. We talked about life. Their next steps. My next steps. What advice I could offer. It was the kind of real, adult conversation that I dreamed about when I took the high school job. It was wonderful and I think it is something those two students will carry with them for quite some time (and I will too.)

As I was heading out, another student popped in with a card and a note. She had missed class early in the day, but made a point to stop by and give it to me. It also reminded me that a student in first period had dropped one on my desk on the way out too. In one of them, the student noted that "I've always hated school, from the time I started, but I loved coming to your class. You always made my day." (It also had a Disney gift card in it!) The other said, "First period is always hard to get up for, but you made me want to be here. You made it fun and you were always excited which got me going too."

These comments, and the others throughout the day, we so validating. I've been really struggling the last couple weeks with the opposite. With complaints that I'm mean and my class is too much work. At the end of each semester teaching seniors I've been made to feel like a failure because I hold kids to standards. My students though, at least these ones, saw why I do. And they are why I do. It isn't because I'm a jerk. It's because for 20 years I've done it and I've seen students do more than they, their parents and yes, most of the teachers, believed they could or would. 

::Steps up on soapbox::

Our young people are not the problem! I get it. The last few years have been rough for teachers - myself included. It's easy to blame students for any number of reasons. But, it's not them. They didn't lock themselves out of school for nearly two years. They didn't ask for "grace" allowing them to live in their cellphones and earbuds for the last three. They didn't take discipline out of schools. We adults did those things. Kids are still kids and most of them want to do well. It's up to us to give them the opportunity to do so.

::Steps down::

If a day like today had come earlier, I might be giving this high school thing another year or two, despite all the significant moral problems I have with our current system (again, for another day...). These are the kind of days that kept me going through 18 years of middle school, and there they came far more often. When you put as much into your job as I do, you need some reward from time to time. I feel I've largely passed my time of that reward coming from adults. Education has moved in directions that don't value my dedication to engagement like it did 5 years ago. That five year period from 2011 to 2016 when I won bunches of awards and was invited to speak at tons of conferences seem like a distant memory. Those opportunities are few and far between lately. Engagement just isn't in. For me, I never focused on engagement because it was "in." I was always doing it, and education circles found me when it became their thing. I don't think it's a "thing." I think it is what education is all about. 

I will miss my seniors. I will miss how honestly easy the day to day work with them was this year. However, maybe it's a flaw in me, but I need that emotional validation. Hopefully, getting back to work with younger kids will bring it more frequently. 

I'm not excited, but I'm ready.

And hey, if it doesn't work out, the high school is always just a couple minutes down the road!