The recent discussions surrounding the educational pressures in Palo Alto beg an important question: What does a successful student look like in our community? How do we define success in high school, and does that answer differ from how we should be defining it for our students?
The education system was developed to prepare our kids for life in the real world. It is meant to equip our students with the skills they need to find their success. However, when we look at how we have defined success for our students, and how success is defined in the real world, there is a vast discrepancy that leaves our students unprepared.
In her guest opinion "The sorrows of young Palo Altans," Palo Alto High School student Carolyn Walworth exposed this disconnect between the professional world and the education system. She states that she and her high school peers are "lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred, and discourages teamwork and genuine learning."
In society, collaboration, empathy, teamwork and innovation are highly valued, yet Carolyn and her peers are conditioned to believe the opposite. We Palo Altans live in a community where our motto could arguably be "think different," yet we have allowed our education system to discourage imperfect thinking.
Global thought leaders and people we hold in high regard professionally, such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Oprah, have all had their opinions on what it means to be successful. One common theme is failure and the resulting growth opportunities. According to Elon Musk, "Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough." Richard Branson even has a list of his top 10 quotes on failure.
When failure is a growth opportunity and a highly supported feat in the real world, why is it punished in high school and college? Our students fear failure and consider it to be avoided at all costs. How do we expect our kids to grow if they are conditioned to think that perfection is the route to success?
The gap between these two definitions of success is widening. I hear painful stories from students I work with about their "transition to the real world." They're told, "Get out there," "Show your value," and "Find your path," but not taught how to actually do it. Students discuss their struggle with networking due to their fear of rejection, their inability to understand or communicate their value and their confusion regarding their interests. Students share their feelings of helplessness, of being ill-prepared for life after school, and of anxiety that comes from not knowing. This transition would not be so painful if our education system focused on equipping our students with the skills necessary to thrive in the real world.
I clearly remember my professor's response three years ago when I told her I would miss 50 minutes of class once a month for my professional pursuits (I had launched an idea and was managing it as a full-time student). She laughed and told me college was not part time, and for every two hours of class, I was required to do four hours of homework. She discouraged my professional efforts, because in the existing system, I could not succeed professionally while also succeeding academically. Why are our students expected to spend countless hours outside of school on homework, and little to no time exploring and creating their successes?
Imagine if students had the opportunity to learn what it takes to thrive independently, to be DO-ers and understand failure, to be able to communicate their strengths and acquire opportunities.
Through my line of work, I have seen the impact professional experiences can have on students. I have seen how a 15-year-old's self-confidence and motivation can skyrocket when she applies the networking skills taught to her and receives a positive email response from a CEO she admires. It is remarkable how a meaningful mentorship, one that was acquired by a 17-year-old and not something he was "placed" into, can provide a sense of direction and accountability that applies to a path beyond high school or college.
While I commend the Palo Alto Unified School District and certain districts around the country for implementing programs of this sort, I do not believe that the mindset surrounding these programs is effective. The programs must represent the real world accurately, and cannot be seen as simple "resume boosters." We cannot simply place students into internships or mentorships; we all know that nothing is handed to us in the real world. We need to teach our students how to explore their interests, and empower them to acquire opportunities independently. We need to let it be OK if a student does not enjoy an internship in a field that he or she so desperately wanted a career in. Cross it off the list and you are one step closer to discovering your true interests. Without this change of mindset, we are stuck in a system where a deceptive definition of success prevails.
It breaks my heart to hear that Carolyn and the many other students I have spoken with do not feel a sense of accomplishment or nostalgia when they look back at their high school and college years. These eight years should not be miserable. They should not lead to unemployment, helplessness and debt. We need to create a learning environment that provides students with real world experiences, and empowers them to create their own success by failing, learning and moving forward. Let's give students the opportunity to look back at these years with nostalgia and gratitude for some of the most meaningful experiences.
Shireen Jaffer is a 2011 graduate of Palo Alto High School and a 2014 University of Southern California grad. She is the founder of Skillify and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.