Five Things I Learned by Going Back to High School

State education policies are rooted in the day-to-day operations of schools and the students that learn and grow in them daily. This is why Commissioner McQueen tasked each member of the department’s 20-person leadership team to go back to high school for a day and shadow a student. Individual members of the leadership team visited high schools in every setting: rural, urban, suburban, and everywhere in between.

By Jayme Place, Commissioner McQueen’s Chief of Staff

picture-3I recently had the honor of heading back to high school to experience a day in the life of a student at Tullahoma High School. My guide for the day, a THS student, was one of the most gracious hosts, walking me to his classes, introducing me to his friends, and even allowing me to sit with him at lunch. Below are the five things I learned in going back to high school:

  1. High school students want to experience and see, before they must live and be. I spent my day talking to students about what they would want changed about their high school experience. The overwhelming feedback was that students wanted the opportunity to experience their future before leaving high school. One student, who was thinking of becoming a nurse, wished he had the chance to shadow a professional health care provider before he followed that pathway; another student I talked to wanted to experience the daily work life of an engineer before heading to college and pursuing a field he might not actually enjoy. The more we can expose students to these early career opportunities, the greater a student’s investment and excitement about the path that lies ahead.
  1. Engaging in music and the arts is an incredible place to develop a student’s worth and sense of community. picture-1 Growing up, I didn’t have band at my high school, so I did not understand how incredibly prideful a group of students can be about the music they can create when they practice and learn together. I cannot capture what I experienced in the band room at Tullahoma high school, but the fact that my host student sent me an email the evening of my visit to share clips of his high school band and show off their talent speaks volumes about the way music can inspire the soul of a high school student.
  1. Even high schoolers want a break from technology sometimes. Technology and education continue to intertwine in impactful ways to further student learning, but even the iPhone generation understands that sometimes the best thinking happens when a blank piece of paper and pencil lie in front of you. The students at Tullahoma expressed the benefits that Chromebooks had had on their learning, but I also listened as some of the girls in health class shared how they process and think best when they can scratch words on a paper. The best environment we can create for students is one that finds that right balance and considers that students learn and process in really different ways.
  1. picture-2Teachers who love what they teach inspire students. As a former math teacher known for getting a little too giddy about rational functions and asymptotes, I was brought back to life as I sat in AP calculus with Mr. Vanzant. Having taught at Tullahoma for years, his love of math seeped through every idea he taught and example problem we practiced. And the kids were invested, because he was invested. You could tell each year brought him more joy than the last and that getting to a simple answer after working out a complex derivative problem made him truly excited. The kids loved seeing his passion, and so did I!
  1. Finding your friends in a high school cafeteria will always be nerve wracking. I realized after grabbing my chicken patty and moving through the lunch line that tracking down my student host might be more difficult than I expected. A sea of students filled the lunchroom and a bit of panic set in as I realized I didn’t know where my “friends” were sitting. Thankfully, despite losing some cool points for helping the old lady, my host stood up and waved at me emphatically. Relief set in as I realized I had found my people in the lunchroom crowd. I learned that day that no matter your age, the lunchroom can be an intimidating place.