The Weight of Wasted Time
When she arrived at her new high school, Hajima’s hope was that the medical careers program would put her on the right path for medical school, both in terms of academic readiness and with some college credit already under her belt. In fact, she had transferred from another public high school—one with higher test scores and more advanced course offerings—explicitly because she’d been enticed by the promise of this program.
Considering that Hajima joined her new school based on the promise that it would prepare her for pre-med studies in college, she was shocked to learn upon arrival that there were no AP math or science courses available to her.
She maxed out on the school’s math offerings as a junior. “They only have up to pre-calc,” she says. “I took that last year. If we feel the classes they have aren’t challenging for us, there are no other options.”
It isn’t lost on Hajima that the academic experiences she has access to at her current school—where her classmates are primarily Black—are weaker than those at her previous school (in the same district), which is primarily white. The tradeoffs have been painful. She reflects on her choice to move schools, in pursuit of better preparation for a medical career: “I don’t really regret moving here because of all the new friends. It’s just education-wise, I do, because it’s not challenging.”
She’d jump at the opportunity to learn more. “We want to be more prepared,” she says.
When Hajima and her best friend talk about how it feels to sit in classes that aren’t challenging enough, they speak of watching the clock. “The time goes super slow,” Hajima’s friend explains. In their physics class, for example, they might get through all the content in the first 20 minutes—and then have nothing to do. It worries Hajima deeply when she considers her future.
“I don’t want to feel like I’m behind when I walk into a class on the first day of college,” she says. “The teacher is not going to wait for me. I’m just going to be a small number in a class, and I don’t want to feel behind or left out.”
Fifty minutes into math, Raymond and his fifth-grade classmates are still working on the warmup: four homework problems their teacher put on the board when they came in (multiplication and division operations that meet a fourth-grade standard). Their teacher explains that the warm-up problems are “to calm [them] down from gym”—though they appeared perfectly calm when they filed into the room. Early on in the lesson, she issues an ominous warning: “What happens when we struggle in math class? All sorts of bad things.”
The lesson moves at an almost unbearably slow pace. The teacher moves through the operations on the board, not checking whether her students understand, pausing to answer questions, or asking students to do much of the work. She solves most of the problems herself, and on one occasion does so incorrectly.
“I know you just came from gym where you got to run around and talk,” the teacher says, frazzled. “It’s math time now. We need to focus.”
One student is asked to leave after talking out of turn, but there’s nowhere for him to go. Booted from his classroom, he paces aimlessly in the hallway, periodically peering through the window to see what’s happening in class. Inside the classroom, students check out, one by one.
“Are we still on number two?” asks another student. She seems astonished. The class period is nearly over. As she starts to explain the tape diagram she’d used to solve the problem, her teacher cuts her off. “Stop. I know what you’re going to say and that’s not why six is broken into three.”
One wonders how it feels—at 11 years old—to be interrupted by a teacher and corrected, before you’ve even had the chance to finish answering a question or explain your thinking. The message students receive, day in and day out, is that they should pay attention in school, respect their teachers, and do what they’re asked. And yet, they undoubtedly internalize a very different message when they are shut down while trying to learn, repeatedly, in the very classrooms where they are expected to be giving their best effort.
Remember, Raymond actually likes math. He thinks it’s “kind of fun.” But today in math class, he rests his head on his desk.
Physics is Isaac’s favorite class. For one thing, he says, it’s clear how the concepts apply in real life—“how you can use it outside of school.” With his aspiration toward a career in nursing, Isaac is aware that he needs a strong math and science background. Not only that, but he likes testing different concepts through experiments. In contrast, in classes where his teachers do all the talking, he struggles to stay focused, because they just don’t engage him deeply.
“Some classes are really dry,” he explains. “You take nothing but notes. That’s not going to help me learn what I need in the long term. What if I need this in my long-term memory? When a class is really dry, the teacher is not helping us learn more about the subject.”
Isaac reflects that he is most interested in classes where the content is useful for what he wants to do with his life. “Let me learn something that’s going to help me in nursing school,” he says. “[It should be] something that’s harder for you, something that’s going to help your lifestyle that you’re living.”
His physics class also rates highly from Isaac’s perspective because his teacher, Mr. Adams, knows how to crack a joke, while also taking students’ learning seriously. “There’s not many classes like that,” Isaac observes.
In contrast to Raymond’s math class, Isaac’s physics class is a positive, enjoyable place to learn. For Isaac, his favorite class seems to occupy the sweet spot between schoolwork that matters in real life, learning experiences he can own himself, and teachers who care for him and his classmates as people.
“I don’t think they want to see us fail,” Isaac says of most of his teachers. “They want to see us move on in life.” But he is also acutely aware of how vital the relationships between teachers and students are, and how they can keep a student’s progress on track—or derail it. While he has several strong relationships with teachers, Mr. Adams among them, he has also experienced the opposite: adults who undermined his self-belief. On several occasions, Isaac describes hearing a teacher belittle him or his classmates on account of their race. As a freshman, he says, one of his teachers told him that he wouldn’t amount to anything because he was Black.
It’s a painful experience to recall. “I told her, ‘It don’t matter the color of my skin. As long as I put in an effort, I can do it,’” he recalls. “I know I can.”
From his perspective, what happens in his current school—and the relationships he has with his teachers there—have a significant impact on his future. “Some of us come to school, and we’re dying. We have a lot going on at home, a lot going on here, but we have to focus here because this might be our last chance at life.”
If he could change anything about his high school experience, it would be more people like Mr. Adams: adults who know him, recognize and respect his life experiences, and support his goals. They teach in ways that help him engage with interesting content and commit it to his long-term memory, which matters to him. And they know how to have an occasional laugh while they’re at it.
Luz loves school—or she used to.
“Throughout elementary and middle school, I tried really hard,” she says. “Straight A student, perfect attendance, that kind of thing. Then freshman year happened, and I got some Ds and Cs. I cried. I cried. I had never gotten a C at the end of the year, or a D. When I saw it happen in freshman year, I was like, ‘Wow. What happened?’”
Luz is a junior in high school. Her school, which serves roughly 500 students, was part of a larger public high school that was closed for poor performance and broken into four smaller schools several years ago. She is reflective about what happened in her transition to high school. Some of the dip in her grades, she says, was because she was unprepared for the challenge of her high school classes.
“I feel like it was a struggle between the difference between the expectations that were given to you in middle school, and then the expectations at high school. I feel that messed me up.”
As she adapted to high school (and with some pressure at home from her father), she raised those grades back up to As and Bs. But she also describes the importance of having teachers who not only push her but also support her.
“[In] biology, there was a lot of words I didn’t understand,” she says. “When I needed help, my teacher didn’t really help me. I would ask questions. She would answer them, but they weren’t what I wanted, so I would have to go to other students. Sometimes they didn’t understand it, so I didn’t understand it.”
For Luz, getting help when she asks for it is an essential component of success in the classroom. “They got to help me when I need help. Actually help me. I feel like having a relationship with your student is important.”
She elaborates. “The teachers that have high expectations for you in their class, you actually try harder, because you want to show you can meet those expectations. But when teachers give up on their students, you’re like, ‘Why should I try if my teacher’s not giving it a try?’”
Now, in the second semester of her junior year, just as Luz is starting to consider college, her grades are starting to slip again. She feels herself disengaging from school more often, and she’s missing the positive relationships with teachers that anchor her to school. “If I don’t really connect with that teacher, then it’s like, why am I in your class?”