“Are you going to teach us how to do taxes?”
The question caught me off guard. Taxes belong in a life-skills or applied mathematics course, not English. However, I followed her logic and addressed her question. We were talking about writing resumes (as part of their career research project), and in her mind she associated one adult life-skill with the other.
No, I’m not going to teach how to do taxes. I don’t even do my own taxes. I send all my W2’s and other paperwork off to an accountant who makes sense of all our relocating and student loans for me. I said as much to my students, to which they responded, “What’s a W2?”
And therein lies the crux of their inquires. They know they don’t even know the basics. They know there’s a world of ambiguous “adult responsibilities” waiting for them down the road, and they know that traditional education leaves many of these responsibilities unaddressed. Sure, we all had to figure it out and we did OK, but I get why they’re asking questions. Adult life can be an intimidating prospect.
We teach them academics. We teach them how to survive college, pick a major, write a research paper, and form good study skills. In my good moments, I also teach them critical thinking skills, questioning content, forming arguments, and defending a stance based on textual evidence. I get the gears turning and force them to exercise the muscle that is their brain. What I do is awesome, and it’s important.
But what about those basic adult responsibilities that don’t fall nicely into the academic curriculum, such as writing resumes, doing taxes, and balancing a checkbook? Where do they learn that stuff?
My students are hungry for that kind of information. I can’t speak for all teenagers in this. Honestly, I can’t even speak for all of my current students, but enough of them are asking the questions to make the topics worth discussing. They’re trying to wrap their brains around what it will mean for them to be an adult, how to live without parents or teachers holding their hands, paying their bills, or putting food on the table.
When I tell them college professors won’t always remind them about assignments before they’re due or won’t always ask for a rough draft of a paper before they turn in the final draft, my students ask why college professors are so mean. It’s not about being mean, I say. It’s about adult expectations and adult responsibility. College students are legally adults, so professors should expect an adult work ethic from them. It’s up to the student to figure out how to live up to that standard. It’s up to me to prepare them for that level of personal accountability.
When we first discussed writing resumes, most of them thought resumes and job applications were the same thing. I had to explain that a resume is a unique document created by the individual, not a form to fill out. They didn’t know what a cover letter was, either, and yet, someday they’ll apply for a job asking for a resume and a cover letter. This is probably the most life-applicable thing I teach, but it isn’t common in most English classrooms. Most students don’t get lessons like this, and I still feel like I don’t get to do enough.
I wish I had time to bring in my full “professionalism” unit to this class so that we could go through the mock interviews, discuss workplace responsibilities, and write an appropriate “two-weeks-notice” letter. I think these kids would eat that stuff up. They’re already asking question after question – I wish I had a more structured way to give them what they want to know.
Reading their career research papers has been interesting, though. I gave them permission to include a personal reflection in the conclusion of the paper, and about half of them have said that after researching the career, they no longer think it’s the right job for them. There’s not enough people interaction, or there’s too much people interaction. It’s not as hands-on as they thought, or it’s more focused on math, science, etc., than they had realized. The other half say they’re even more excited about their career choice after researching it.
So were the excited students more successful in the project than their less-enthusiastic counterparts?
Absolutely not. This project may have just saved some of my students from declaring the wrong major when they entered college. It forced them to think about the day-to-day grind of adulthood, and some realized that they want to do something else instead. I’d call that very successful, even if they now have more questions than answers.
That’s what it’s about, I suppose. Questions. Actively pursuing information. If they’re willing to ask the questions now, they’ll be able to hunt down the answers as necessary, when the time comes. The fact that they want to know now what responsibility and professionalism looks like means that they probably won’t struggle too much when they need to be responsible and professional themselves. They’re already asking the right questions.
We figured it out. So will they.