During the 2021 Fall semester, we saw a number of TicTok challenges go viral that encouraged vandalism or violence against schools and teachers. The challenges started in September with the “Devious Lick” Challenge that encouraged students to steal things off the walls of their school, mainly bathroom soap dispensers. October brought the “Slap a Teacher” Challenge where students would run up to a teacher or school staff member, slap them and then run away. Schools and school districts made headlines by taking a hard stance against these internet “challenges,” and since there was video documentation through TicTok posts of the offenses, students were held accountable.
Most recently in December, we saw the most frightening threat to school communities yet, calling December 17th “National Shoot Up Your School Day”. As a high school administrator, I take campus security and the safety of my students incredibly seriously. I am grateful to report how quickly schools, school districts, and law enforcement in the Bay Area jumped to investigate the threats toward schools, found them as not credible, and no one was hurt. We can all agree that this is the power of social media gone wrong. I wish I had solutions to offer about how we can stop these viral videos and threats, but I don’t have any, yet. While I reflect deeply on the recent TicTok trends, I can’t help but think, what are our teenage students trying to tell us?
For the majority of local schools December 17, 2021 was during Finals Week. While it looks like on the surface level that students may have been trying to get out of a final exam or two with a threat of a school shooting, maybe we need to be listening a little deeper to our student’s needs. We should be recognizing that they are unhappy or frustrated and our current high school system might not be working for everyone. I don’t think it was a coincidence that these threats or “challenges” were popular during the first semester back to traditional school schedules.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw schools reinvent how they operated. While buildings were closed, many schools were able to offer distance learning and supported students in non-traditional ways. It is important to recognize that some programs were more successful than others, and distance learning does not work for all learning styles or socioeconomic groups, but in general I do think educators learned some things that worked, students and parents liked, and we should consider adopting.
This may seem obvious, but one of the things we learned from the pandemic is that teenagers can learn outside of a classroom. Whether they were taking class from their bed, kitchen table, hotel room on a family vacation, or in a park, learning can be done anywhere. Post-pandemic, let’s rethink what a learning space looks like and give our teens some choices. How can we get these kids up, moving, and outside using their hands? Or, let’s at least give them the option to choose how they want to learn based on their learning style.
One of the first things that schools adapted after pivoting to distance learning was their school schedule. Schools pushed start times back to 8:00 or 8:30, and without the commute, teens (and parents!) were getting more rest. We also saw a trend in local schools offering classes 4 days per week, and having one day for “catching up” on homework, studying, or mental health breaks. With the four day class schedule, teachers were encouraged to teach the most essential parts of their curricula, making courses more efficient. With a four day school week, we could significantly reduce the current feeling of overwhelm in schools. It has been a lot for teens (and adults!) to go from learning efficiently at home to jumping right back into 100% full time school. It takes time to build stamina for being back around people. Offering compassion during the transition would be a gift to our teens.
On days with no official class periods during distance learning, many students took on jobs as essential workers, and learned other skills that are not taught in schools. Encouraging part time jobs or internships is a frontier that high schools should be spending more time exploring. With one designated day per school week, we could find a way to integrate other forms of learning for teens, without piling on more than they are already carrying. Some ideas are apprenticeships in the trades, community service, or days dedicated to learning labs. Preparing for college doesn’t always need to be the focus of education for all teens. It is arguable that skill building could help students in higher education as well. Our role is to give students a foundation of skills to be thoughtful contributors to society.
We are at a pivotal moment in education. We learned that teenagers can learn online. High school doesn’t have to be 180 days of learning from 8:00am to 3:00pm. I want to be clear that I don’t think any of the ideas above are easy to execute and all school administrations are doing their best for their own unique communities. I do want to advocate for listening to our students’ needs and frustrations, meeting them where they are, and being open to creative solutions so we can move secondary education forward into the future. Together, my hope is that we can ease some of the tension between students and schools that we are seeing on TicTok. Teens are smart. They got our attention with social media. Now, let’s be courageous leaders and host listening sessions for students and parents on how we can best support this upcoming generation of learners. Let’s strive for a high school experience built on trust and partnership between students, parents, and faculty and staff.