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The first time I sub in a new class, I don’t care what subject, I tell them the following:

“Here’s the real deal, folks. Getting a high school diploma today does not show the world you have received a basic education. It simply means you’ve proven you can put up with the BS of an outdated system for 4 years and get that required piece of paper. It tells the world that you can ‘work within whatever system you find yourself’, that you are able to delay gratification, that you can be reliable and show up. All very valuable abilities to possess, true enough. BUT – it does not guarantee you’ve been educated. That is YOUR job, and only YOU can guarantee that.”

This starts some great discussions and the kids usually leave saying they wish I was their regular teacher. I know better – I’m in exactly the right teaching position for me: substitute.

Having had a child drop out of high school myself, I have a front-row seat to the frustration and limits imposed on his choices now as he approaches his 21st birthday. Without the diploma, he has to prove himself at every turn, more so than he would have had to with one. Watching him try to get through school was another “peel a band-aid off the hairy part of your arm – REAL SLOW” experience, and I did my best with what I knew at the time to help him. Unfortunately, it wasn’t much or nearly enough.

I know more today, and I still have two more kids to get through our educational system. I’m much more available to them than I was with my oldest because I work from home, and now I’m in a much better position to advocate for them…and I do. I know that I can’t fix the problems of our public education system single-handedly, but I can do what I can do.

I can put myself in a position to reach students who might be struggling with the decision to drop out or not and empower them by telling them that ultimately their education (or lack thereof) is up to them. You’d think that would just piss them off and make them decide to quit, but so far, it hasn’t. It seems to have the effect of making them stop and think, at least in my presence. I tell them it’s their job to wring every last drop of value out of the time they spend in the schools, since they have to be there, anyway. If they want to ‘get one over on the establishment’, then I advise them to show up those who have written them off and say they won’t make it – and make it. Take all that rebellion and rebel in a way that will serve them in the long run.

Statistically, there is a 41% drop-out rate at Second Son’s high school as of the 2006-2007 school year. Last year’s student population was just over 1,000 students. I don’t know the size of last year’s freshman class, but this year it is over 500, alone. So, statistically, only 300 of them will graduate. I point that out in the classes, too. I have them all stand up and I send 40% of them to one side of the room and 60% of them to the other side. Then, I point at the 40% group and I say, “Statistically, you guys aren’t going to graduate.” I tell the students that, at the end of the day, only they have the power to change that number.

Then I ask the 40% group if they’re ok with not graduating, and almost always, all of them yell, “No!” So, I tell them to flip the bird at me and that statistic and cross over to the other side of the room…and whenever they feel like giving up, to remember how good it felt to flip the bird at someone telling them they can’t do something like graduate.

This might be a little unorthodox, but I believe you have to reach them before you can teach them. This reaches them…where they’re at. (And yes, I tell them don’t be flipping the bird outside of my classroom…lol)