About Cari Zall

Cari Zall has been a Social Sciences educator for over 12 years, in both brick & mortar and online environments. She currently works as the Curriculum and Instructional Support Manager for an online high school dropout recovery program, and is the Assignment Editor and a writer for The Educator’s Room, an online education magazine. Cari is certified in Gamification and has worked on several projects incorporating Gamification into online and traditional education environments. Her areas of expertise include Gamification and Student Resilience & Motivation; Conflict Resolution & Collaboration, and social justice education. Prior to her teaching career, Cari worked for 15 years in civil litigation and as a human rights activist in Northern Ireland and Washington, DC. She holds a BA in Conflict Analysis & Resolution, an Masters in Teaching, and an MA in Political Science. Cari is a James Madison Fellow, and is the author of the book, How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks: A Teacher Faces Layoff, Unemployment and a Career Shift. You can finder her on twitter at @teachacari.

This article is part of a new series based on interviews with former high school students about their experience of school and teachers in high school.

courtesy stevesfilms.com

courtesy stevesfilms.com


Meg grew up in intense poverty.  She had little parental support throughout her childhood and teen years, and had to navigate her own way through her education experience without guidance from home.  She attended the largest urban high school in her state, one with over 75% poverty, yet despite being part of that demographic, experienced her high school career as an outsider.  She is adamant that if not for particular teachers who took an interest in her and helped to guide her, effectively becoming “surrogate” parents, she is not sure what direction she might have gone.  I had the privilege of teaching Meg in Sociology, and experienced the gift of watching her blossom into her own ideas and beliefs about who she was and where she wanted to go.   This is Meg’s story – it’s one that you might find familiar, or one that is outside your experience of students.  Either way, understanding what school was like from the point of view of a student who survived it is intensely valuable to us as educators. Hearing from the true experts can only enhance our teaching skills and the way we interact with our students.

When she first entered high school, Meg dealt with terrible social anxiety and she quickly became mentally and emotionally exhausted trying to navigate the crush of a 3,000 student school.  Her main goal was to just get through it and get out of it.  By the time she was a senior she had learned to manage her anxiety, and earned enough credits to go half days.  For her college was the way out:

All I cared about was college. As a little girl that was all I dreamed about – albeit the dream carried a certain far away, boarding school, Hogwarts-esque feel to it – I knew college was the place I wanted to be since I learned what it was. 

Despite her hard work and determination, she did not get much encouragement to pursue her collegiate dreams.  Her parents had no knowledge of how to help her get to college, and provided her no support.  And as often happens in high poverty schools, the “guidance counseling” often took the form of trying to convince her to settle for what they thought was possible (community college), not what she believed she could achieve.  But she did get support from another avenue:

I got most of my “positive” encouragement from teachers, they were, in fact, my saving grace and

[helped keep] my head level… I want to say I have privileges that other students do not (white privilege for one, [because] many administrators had bias against students of color in my experience), but I come from a broken, poor home. I had a 30 hour a week part time job to keep up with expenses. I was smart about who I talked to and… I figured out early on my teachers would be my greatest allies. And I was right. They have truly gotten me where I wanted to go, educated me, and for a good part of my youth, gave me a purpose.  

Meg can quickly name the teachers that had the most impact on her.  Her science teachers specifically because they challenged her mind, used humor, and did not waste time with meaningless busy-work.  Her English and Health teachers because they were women who set strong examples of independence and confidence, and taught truth to power.  And one arts teacher in particular who validated her goals and helped her achieve her dreams.  More than just academic subject matter, Meg learned how to navigate life from them:

[those teachers ] made huge impacts on me and cultivated who I am today for sure. I know how to talk to adults and professors, get through interviews, essay applications and get in professors’ good graces. But I also want integrity in my work, to value of myself and my brain, and the importance of education because of those few teachers.

And where is she now?  She took a chance on herself! She currently attends university in London with a partial merit scholarship and student loans.  She plans to continue on to graduate school at Oxford or Cambridge or an American school.  She hopes to one day achieve a doctorate.  She is studying foreign relations and is very interested in diplomacy.  She is keeping her options open, though, because she knows her varied interests might lead her in new directions.  She trusts herself to figure it out along the way.  While she remains open about what may happen, she knows what she wants to avoid: she’s already experienced the stresses of being a child of poverty, divorce, alcoholism, living with no heat, no running water, no gas for the car, no healthcare, and no hope.  She knows what she doesn’t want for sure.

I asked her, looking back at her high school experience, what policy changes might she suggest that would have made her time more positive.  She had some definite ideas!

I suggest after the first few weeks organizing students by learning style, and maybe asking them how they learn best: those who like to do their work alone, quietly, those who need a lot of attention, those who work well in groups, etc and then split them up when doing assignments. I was always in the first category, and I hated pulling the weight of others when doing group work, or having a teacher over-talk the instructions when I already got the gist. …I would also suggest letting students drop classes they don’t need or want so they have more time to pursue their job, homework, or general free time away from school. It made my experience 1000% more enjoyable when I was at school knowing I was there taking the classes I needed to graduate, not just classes I was taking to fill a space in my schedule. Ridiculous. 

In terms of what had the most impact on her – teachers or the courses she took, or other influences:

Teachers. They were 100% influential in my education and how I learned.  The content of the course was only as good as the teacher who taught it. Who made it important. Who gave it life.

Advice she would give teachers?

For teachers, be a student. Take notes on your own teaching style, and your students. Learn everyone’s names. Take general interest in what your students have to say, and make them feel important. Make jokes. Be confident. You’ve been doing this a while. You’re probably good at it. You deserve and demand respect.

Advice for current high school students – she has a lot!

I gave a talk the other day to students at my old school, and I told them a few things: In high school, you will be pressured to do all these sports and extracurriculars and volunteer and get good grades to get into a good school and blah-blah-blah.  The pressure is crushing.  But it’s actually more important to be involved in things you actually like: I was in the science club because I love the earth, and I did art shows because I was good at art and enjoyed it. …Because it’s not what you know, only, but what you do with what you know.

You don’t have to like everyone. You can actually really dislike them. But you have to afford everyone the same dignity and respect regardless of your feelings towards them. Save the drama for your mama, and let the grudges living rent free in your head go. They only serve to hold you back, and make you look bad.

The sky is not the limit. Outer space is probably the limit, but we don’t know. Things are possible, you can do them, and poverty can hold you back, but it is also a tool to make you stronger and fighter harder for the things that really matter. Don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t worth your true potential. Look where you’re going, but don’t forget where you came from.

Use your teachers. They are a valuable tool to help you realize your full potential. They are the best guidance you have. Sometimes they are just there to make your day better. Find the good ones, and keep in touch. Even after you graduate.

It’s probably evident why I am so proud of Meg.  She is an expert because of her experiences, and she teaches me how to be a better teacher.  Her story is unique to her, but also applies to so many students now struggling to figure out how to rise out of poverty and achieve their dreams. Some of them need encouragement just to find dreams in the first place.  How we teach our content area is really important – but how we influence each student that comes into contact with us can have truly lasting effect.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email