Leaving high school & joining the school of life: Words of caution & hope

As a former high school teacher I can remember the excitement and unbridled enthusiasm that many students have at this time of year as they prepare to graduate from school.

Many feel hugely excited to have finished school and are optimistic about never having to attend high school again.

For those who are academically very capable this can be a time of incredible anticipation because they have the potential to score the grades that will enable them to further their studies at a tertiary level.

Those who have been less able in the academic department often feel jealous of the brightest students, thinking they’re going to have an easier time furthering their life journey in a positive way. Sadly this is not always the case. I have worked with a number of students who gained excellent results in high school and who came unstuck at university for a number of different reasons.

Students who excel in all subjects carry the burden of ‘too much potential’ – they could do anything! Making choices that respect their passions and interests, as well as their cognitive aptitude, can be helpful.

Finding success in life – whatever that means – is pretty confusing for today’s teens. At the moment we have a high number of graduates without jobs – and some would argue many are unemployable.

A degree without experience is a tough place to be – disappointed, disillusioned and still needing to gain experience in a world that won’t give you a go. However we still drown our children with the message that high grades is the best way to finding a decent life – it is one way.

Some of our brightest find the transition from their country homes to the city too confronting and too difficult to do alone. Others who followed the advice of well-meaning parents and school psychologists found they have enrolled in courses that they grew to hate.

Then there were those who succumbed to the temptations of excessive alcohol consumption, illicit drugs and unhealthy sexual behaviour that also derailed their studies. Paul Dillon writes about the window of 18 to 21 in terms of alcohol, poor choices and risky behaviour as being a time when many adolescents leave the safety of home.

Those students who found school difficult at times can also find it a challenging time of transition especially now that vocational courses have become so expensive. Indeed some TAFE apprenticeships have increased from $600 a year to $6000 a year. This has jeopardised potential pathways for further study for many students and many students who do complete their apprenticeships do so with a large debt.

The massive expansion of registered training organisations has also made things very confusing for students to make choices. Some of these organisations have been so consumed with enrolments so that they can get money from the government, they have neglected to support students in the completion of their studies. Many of the courses have been shown to be completely ineffective in preparing young people for the work they were seeking.

So not only do families have to contend with these additional challenges that were not there many years ago in choice making, today’s teens who are struggling to leave school are not as emotionally and mentally capable as previous generations.

They do appear to be less resilient and capable of dealing with setbacks and disappointments. Many lack confidence and the attributes that enabled life success – mainly persistence, organisation skills, verbal communication skills, goal-setting strategies and the hunger to strive for excellence, despite disappointment.

Many teenagers have expressed to me the disappointment and sense of failure that they felt after graduation ceremonies. Because so few of the student body receive prizes, many expressed feeling like a loser when they left their graduation ceremony because they did not get a prize. Yes they received their graduation certificate and that is something to be proud of – however through the lens of the teenage brain many feel not good enough.

Celebrating with meaning

To offset this possible disappointment from the graduation ceremony there is something parents can do. It can be helpful within families to have an acknowledgement of this profound rite of passage – the ending of 12-13 years of schooling, and the beginning of the rest of your life.

It deserves to be acknowledged and respected by the people who love you the most, not just your school. I took one of my lads on the day of his graduation to the highest point in our local town – it took some climbing – so we could pause and reflect. I was able to say a few words without being distracted by the others or the world. It was a beautiful, quiet and powerful moment for both of us.

For others it might be a special weekend away with a couple of best mates for a surfing adventure – celebrating not only the ending of school but the importance of friendship, no matter what the school results end up being.

It can also be a simple barbecue or a weekend away camping with a friendship group and the family. At some point a grown-up – a parent or a number of parents – needs to acknowledge how important this stage of life is, sharing some of the successes and challenges that each individual has experienced and to thanking those have supported them to this point.

Then there needs to be a spoken intention to all of these young people that the rest of their life is in front of them and that every grown-up present will continue to be their support and guidance in any way they need.

This reassurance can be really helpful and it is often assumed that young people will know we are still there for them – however assumptions can be incredibly unreliable.

For some, the final results can be shattering. Sometimes they can get much lower than expected – and many kids have told me they feel ashamed. For those whose parents have paid huge money to send them to the best private schools, this shame is coupled with guilt and a strong feeling of letting their parents down.

Teens find it difficult to see the other benefits of completing high school other than the final grades. I was bitterly disappointed when my history mark was not as high as I had hoped. It was still a distinction however I really had hoped for higher. I also neglected to appreciate my higher than expected maths mark. Such is the difficulty of the teen brain to assess things logically and in a balanced way. They really are their own worst enemy.

I once chatted to a teen who gained an award for her final exam and her photo was in the paper. When she started university she felt she had this additional weight on her shoulders that ‘the world’ expected her to succeed at an exceptional level.

Indeed the pressure became so strong that she developed panic attacks and an anxiety disorder and needed to defer for a year. She did come back and complete her studies wiser and stronger. Some do not.

Life will present bumps, bruises, gifts and successes and all of them need to be embraced because that’s what the school of life is really like.

Acknowledging the grief

We need to be mindful that this is a huge change and although these students can be incredibly excited at ending school, they can struggle.

Leaving familiar environments and systems like high school where we have a web of safety and we get to see our best friend every day of the week does create a sense of loss and this is seldom addressed.

Grief is a normal response to a loss experience. After the excitement of Schoolies and then Christmas there is often a gap before a teen begins something new whether that be a new job or further studies.

Many struggle with a sense of lethargy or mild malaise and in many ways they are grieving for the familiarity of high school. No longer do they see their friends five days a week and indeed many of them begin scattering and leaving their nearby communities. Of course they can stay in touch by social media but they are actually not physically in the same space in the same time as they were before and they will miss that experience.

Sometimes this grieving process coincides with repeated rejections in the search for a job or a position in a course. Further disappointment overloads their sensitive nervous systems and can create unhealthy levels of anxiety and stress.

Boys can struggle particularly in this journey as they are often less mature than girls and very sensitive to feeling like a failure. Many parents tell me the frustration of having an 18-year-old boy stuck in his bedroom gaming because he has been rejected in his job search and has given up.

When teens feel emotionally flat they stop connecting with their friends and the outside world and this can be a very dark place for them to be.

Keeping connected

Some sage advice about the importance of friendships is also really valuable at this time. Encouraging young people to watch out for their friends at all times sounds like an easy thing to do.

The research shows clearly that human connectedness is the greatest protective factor in terms of resilience. Family and friends are so much more important than young people realise. There have been many times where we have had a teenager join our family for a week, a month or a year to help them in this transition into the big wide world beyond school. The village of connectedness can be such a powerful protector for our transitioning young adults.

The more life skills a teen has when they leave school the better they transition into the real world. Feel free to download this guide and encourage your teen to master as many as possible before they step into the school of life.

I am a firm believer in gap years where young people work, travel or both. Many have experiences during that gap year that change their perception of what they want to do.

In a way a year to ‘grow up’ a little and to gain some life experience can be deceptively advantageous. Hopefully they can get to spend time away from the safety of home as they stretch their wings and learn to make some sound choices around managing money, accommodation and living with others.

Supporting the transition

There is no rush to get to where ever you need to be … indeed many young adults start university in their mid 20s when they find something that they really love rather than following something they ‘can’ do. On one of my lad’s gap years he dislocated his thumb surfing and as a consequence of meeting a friendly male radiographer – also a surfer – he changed his options from acquaculture to medical imaging.

So as our final year students leave the world of school those of us in their families and communities need to be collectively mindful of this challenging transition time.

It is helpful if people offer casual work or part-time work to those around them. Other people helping us can enhance the gradual building of life skills.

If they haven’t already, this is a time to get their driver’s license. Getting a first aid certificate can be really helpful as well. Taking a cooking course can also open doors of capacity and be fun.

The key to positively supporting the transition is to keep in mind small steps rather than giant leaps. Help your teen set up a goal if they want to travel or save to buy a car – planning for the future is generally not something they’re very good at doing at that point.

Essentially, in order for our final-year students to reach their full potential they need to be surrounded by caring, committed family and communities. Just as has happened in traditional kinship communities for thousands of years. Many get lost on this journey and many take a lot longer than they need to find that place of stability and worthwhileness.

I challenge every grown-up to step forward and support our young girls and boys as they leave school and enter the school of life. Be the lighthouses they need, be the safe bases they need, and be the teachers and mentors that they definitely need to gain the life learning and experiences they need to make the choices that are for their highest good.

We want all of our graduating students to shine and realise their dreams, however they cannot do it alone. Be there. Please.