A High School “Back to School Night” Speech
Presented to Parents at Louisville High School
by Rachel Thinnes on August 26, 2015
Guest Post by Rachel Thinnes
I must admit, as a parent, I hate back to school nights. I find them extremely anxiety-inducing: finding my way from class to class, keeping track of new paperwork and schedules, and the scariest part of all, listening to 7 different teachers, summarize in a nutshell everything that my less-than–stellar-student-of-a-son is expected to accomplish in the next 9 months.
Usually before I even leave the campus, I find myself texting my son with a barrage of reprimands, disguised as questions. “Where is that form I’m supposed to sign?” “Why didn’t you tell me you needed a 2 pocket folder, a 3 ring binder, a 4 color pen, a 5subject notebook?” “Have you even started that research project that’s due in 3 months?”
Once home, the nagging continues about how important this year is going to be because next year is coming and college is coming right after that, and did he do anything besides eat Top Ramen and browse the internet all night?
But last year, after I came to my senses and apologized saying “Tonight just really stressed me out,” he said, “Now you know I how I feel every day.” And he had a really good point – if I find high school stressful for one night, what kind of stress must he be managing and adjusting to these first few weeks of school, and maybe even longer?
So, my hope for you tonight is this: Relax, enjoy, and admire. Be glad you already did high school. It’s not a time for you to worry about your daughter, but a chance for you to admire your daughter, for making a healthy adjustment to this new school year and for her ability to navigate on her own, every day, something that, trust me, after just one night, will exhaust you.
My other hope for you this evening is that you will take some time to admire her teachers. As you visit the classrooms, you might hear only the “brass tacks” about classroom policies and expectations. But as you continue to get to know the teachers, you will soon see that their dedication to your daughter’s success goes far beyond the walls of their classrooms and margins of their lesson plans.
Over the summer, as part of our commitment to ongoing professional growth, all teachers and administrators selected a book (from a pre-determined list of 5 options) to read as their summer reading assignment. On one of our first days together, we engaged as colleagues and professionals in an inspiring discussion about the shared themes of the books regarding creativity, developing character, exploring one’s passion, and valuing intrinsic motivation over externalized rewards. All of the discussion revolved around how we, as educators, want to inspire those things in your daughters and in our school.
One book many of our faculty particularly enjoyed was William Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep, which takes a critical look at the authentic learning and healthy development students sacrifice because they are too busy being the perfect student with the perfect grades in the high pressure, fast-paced, check-the-box world of preparing for college acceptance. In the book, he reminds us:
Life is more than a job; jobs are more than a paycheck; and a country is more than its wealth. Education is more than the acquisition of marketable skills, and you are more than your ability to contribute to your employer’s bottom line or the nation’s GDP, no matter what the rhetoric of politicians or executives would have you think.
To ask what college is for is to ask what life is for, what society is for—what people are for. Do students ever hear this?
Students are expected to demonstrate creativity and perform service in order to get into college, but no one thinks they should be dumb enough to take them seriously as vocational goals.
After much discussion about passages like these, we began talking about how important it is to remember that we need to develop the confidence and passion of every student we encounter, and to do that we need to truly to validate them for who they are right now, instead of always pushing them to look ahead at the next stop, off in the distance. A person is only intrinsically motivated to determine their next destination when they have had time to stop and explore the one at they are already at.
To use another metaphor, we raise our children in a perpetual state of dress rehearsal – pre-school is dress rehearsal for kindergarten, kindergarten is dress rehearsal for elementary, elementary for middle school, and well, I think you see where this is going.
And if you ask any performer, the dress rehearsal is the part with all the hard work and stress. The performance is the satisfying part, the meaningful part, where all the work pays off.
Who would want to be stuck in dress rehearsal for 13 years?
When do we let them perform as the people they are right now at the age they are right now?
How long before they get the satisfaction of being fully-realized performers in their own narratives?
Can you imagine if people older than us constantly drilled us on the rules of Scrabble because “When we get to the retirement home, everyone is going to expect us to know how to play it”?
And so my final hope not for this evening, but for the new year is this: That we– as parents and educators – stop – at least some times – the rehearsal for college and appreciate adolescence as one of the greatest performances ever. They are not little children and they are not mini-collegiate scholars. They are at a crucial, specific, and final point in their development. They need to know and understand who they are, so they can learn who they want to become and how to get there. Maybe she needs to be a C student before we teach her how to become a B student. Maybe she needs to be a poor decision maker at times to learn how to become a better decision maker. Maybe she needs to be uncertain and insecure before she becomes resolved and confident about her own passions and talents.
And I know this is scary, because they might suffer, they might struggle and they might make mistakes. And no one wants this for their child. But if it is true that suffering, struggling, and making mistakes is an inevitable and important part of life and learning, what better time and place for her to do it, then while she has the love and care of her parents, and the guidance and support of a place like Louisville?
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Rachel Thinnes is the Dean of Students and Dean of Faculty at Louisville High School in Woodland Hills, California.
You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes