The Problem with Preparing Students for ‘The Real World’

“’Welcome to the real world,’ she said to me, condescendingly.
Take a seat. Take your life. Plot it out in black and white.”

That’s how John Mayer’s breakthrough hit from 2002, “No Such Thing,” begins. “She,” presumably, is Mayer’s high school guidance counselor who wants the young musician to “stay inside the lines.” The song is essentially the middle finger to any post high school advice other than “follow your dreams.” In 2002, Mayer had no way of knowing how burdensome standardized “test and punish” practices would actually become during the fourteen year reign of No Child Left Behind. Like Mayer, I went to high school in the nineties, when the only standardized tests that I remember were the SAT and ACT, and I chose which one of those I wanted to take. Teachers my age (40) may find respite listening to the entirety of Mayer’s debut studio album, “Room For Squares,” partly for the nostalgia (see “83”) and partly for the pertinence of “No Such Thing” to the current struggle against corporate education reform.

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A close cousin to the “college and career readiness” narrative in American high schools is the more informal ideology that the purpose of education is to prepare students for “the real world,” life as a working adult not enrolled in school. Educational proponents of this belief system have a tendency to be skeptical of non-traditional practices like restorative discipline and culturally responsive teaching. These new practices are often accused of coddling students by creating an unrealistic environment, a school experience that does not adequately correspond to future adult life.

The problem with preparing students for the real world is that the real world can be a very shitty place. The job of educators is not to replicate for the classroom the injustice of life as a working adult. But, you may ask, what about the tested and approved teaching and parenting truism, “Life’s not fair”? Absolutely, life is not fair! But guess what? It should be! “Life’s not fair” is like saying, “The world sucks, so should we.” Providing, to the very best of our ability, a school environment that offers safe space and equity for all will in no way set up our students for failure as adults. We don’t need to prepare students for uniform assimilation into “the real world.” We need to raise generations who are not satisfied with what the real world offers and are equipped to change it for the better.

The problem with preparing students for the real world is that the real world can be a very shitty place.

Someone who does not know I am a teacher recently asked me if I had time off for the holidays. I told them that my kids and I had two weeks out of school, to which they replied, “Well, when you get to the real world, you only get a couple of days.” I highly doubt they view teaching as not part of the real world, so they must have assumed I was a student of some kind. That is the moment when it struck me how incredibly invalidating and patronizing is this myth of “the real world.” As a teacher, I refuse to perpetuate a narrative that implies that students live in some sort of less than authentic reality. I refuse to believe that adolescence is nothing more than a waiting room for adulthood. My students’ lives are real now. Their experiences are valid now. Their life lessons are valuable now. My students are so much more than aspiring adults.

That is the moment when it struck me how incredibly invalidating and patronizing is this myth of “the real world.”

I remember as a teenager being told that life becomes more difficult in adulthood. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. The reason most people say they would not go back to high school is because high school was by far the most difficult period of their life. Many say they would go back to elementary if they only did not have to re-experience high school. The truth is “adulting” is easy. The trauma I have experienced as an adult does not compare to the daily middle school and high school stress of growing bodies, expanding minds, and unparalleled relationship pressure. If realness is measured in terms of complexity, then high school is “the real world” and adulthood is some post real world fantasy.

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As education professionals we should unequivocally reject the narrative concerning preparing students for “the real world.” We should encourage our students to dream big and follow those dreams. We should create a school environment that rewards ideas that are outside the lines. And we should do it in our existing brick and mortar neighborhood public schools. We don’t need shutdowns. We don’t need charters. We don’t need vouchers. And we don’t need corporate sponsors. Not every student can be as successful as someone like John Mayer, but every student can rise above the lie with the support of sincere and responsive educators.

“I want to run through the halls of my high school.
I want to scream at the top of my lungs.
I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world,
Just a lie you’ve got to rise above.”

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One thought on “The Problem with Preparing Students for ‘The Real World’

  1. I like the way you think, Aaron! Two things stuck out to me. First, “The problem with preparing students for the real world is that the real world can be a very shitty place.” I agree with this 100%. Some of the practices that we must comply with in teaching have rubbed me the wrong way because of the fact that the “real world” can be pretty messed up. There will always be winners and losers, everyone doesn’t need a trophy. You are supposed to get up. go to school, and complete your assignments. Why am I giving you an award for that? (To play devil’s advocate, some students, and some adults, do need some extrinsic motivation to overcome bad habits, for these other responsible habits to become extrinsic.) I digress. All I mean to say is in schools, sometimes our actions for helping our students assimilate into the real world/adulthood is sometimes not realistic at all.

    With that, I am curious to know how you feel about restorative practices and culturally relevant teaching. You say, “they are often accused of coddling students by creating an unrealistic environment, a school experience that does not adequately correspond to future adult life.” This seems like a general statement, but I wonder your thoughts.

    The second things that resonated with me is, “My students’ lives are real now.” A very simple, yet real statement that I think many of us forget about as we get lost in our days, weeks, and months, leading up to standardized tests, and fearing whether we will earn a bonus for high tests scores/growth or lose our jobs. Before curriculum and instruction, I think building relationships with students and their families is the most important thing we can do as educators, and I feel talking to them, and listening to them and their stories and life experiences help us understand how real their lives are right now.

    Thank you for this great post!

    Yours in Education,

    Krystal

    Like

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