The Back to School Lists Hide What Really Matters

Sep 1, 2022 11:10:21 AM


I have always struggled with back-to-school anxiety. From my earliest memories of elementary school to my days teaching middle and high school math, I have always been stressed to the point of sleeplessness thinking about all the things we normally think about when asking, “are you ready for back-to-school?” When I hear that question, I immediately start worrying about all the “stuff.”

So much stuff. It's ridiculous. As a person identified as gifted at 7 years old and diagnosed with ADHD at 37, I used to think that this stress came from the increasingly complex process of getting prepared for the first day.

At age 7, it was all about spending hours trying to put together my three-ring binder with my dividers for different subjects, knowing that a month later, it would be a raggedy, dog-eared hunk of junk with broken rings and papers flying out of it. In high school, my back-to-school energy was spent mentally preparing for having seven different teachers with seven different sets of classroom rules and expectations.

As a teacher, I was even more convinced that I understood the sources of the stress. Bulletin boards I needed a weekend to prepare because I cannot cut letters or hang things properly.

Learning on my first day of teacher in-service training that I’m going to be teaching Algebra II for the first time on top of two other preps, while figuring out how to put my lesson plans into the new lesson plan system using the new lesson plan format. Then, day after day of professional learning eating up time and brain space  when I’m still trying to figure out how to make sure I enroll in the right benefits package they discussed back on day one in the 1-hour turbo-speed presentation. 

The Stress Gets Me As a Parent, Too

As if the stress I experienced as a student and as a teacher wasn’t enough, I now also feel it as a parent of two elementary-aged children. Trying my best to not forget something on this classroom supply list that grows exponentially more demanding each year. Struggling to read through the 50-page student/family handbook to figure out all the rules I need to consider for all things. Struggling even more thinking about the fact that I’m struggling to make sense of all of this as an educator who is also a licensed attorney. So what does that mean for our families who don’t speak eduspeak or legalese?

And let’s not forget, growing up in Brooklyn, New York, where almost all students walked to school, took the school bus, or used public transit woefully underprepared me for the Hunger Games nature of the back-to-school carpool line.

The truth is, I still struggle with these stressful feelings. Now, it’s even worse. It sticks with me for months, since my work with thinkLaw has me involved in school year kickoffs from late July to early September. I have spent so much time in this space, so much time seeing students, teachers, and families worried about all the same things that worry me. 

The Back to School Lists Hide What Really Matters

But recently, I realized that I have it all wrong. My back-to-school stress is not about and has never been about “all the stuff.” It is about the disconnect between “all the stuff” and “the stuff that really matters” when it comes to the true essence and purpose of education.

Education has played a disruptive role in my life. As a child in a family of immigrants, a young man who grew up on free and reduced lunch visiting an incarcerated father, education transformed my universe of opportunities. I see the true essence and purpose of education realized when stories like mine are no longer exceptions to the rule. 

To be even clearer, in my most recent book, Tangible Equity: A Guide for Leveraging Student Identity, Culture, and Power to Unlock Excellence In and Beyond The Classroom, I set a very clear standard of what educational equity actually means: Equity is about reducing the predictive power of demographics and zip codes to zero.

So when I think about “the work,” I think about what it would have meant to me as a student to spend my time, energy, and brainpower not just on efforts that helped me overcome gaps typically affiliated with my demographic profile, but on practices to shatter the achievement ceiling altogether. 

I spent so much time preparing for where and how I was going to physically store the information my teachers gave me, when I should have been preparing for how I was going to mentally process this information and actually apply it to real-world challenges I faced in school and in life.

Back to School With Tangible Equity

As a teacher, I recognize the importance of complying with rules, policies, and expectations. But what if being ready for school as a teacher meant more than having a well-decorated, organized classroom and checking off all of the compliance boxes? To achieve the vision of Tangible Equity outlined in my book, we should spend less time on the compliance stuff and much more time on setting clear, measurable goals to reduce the predictive power of student demographics on outcomes.

What could this look like? Some ideas:

If your school has a large set of brand-new teachers, it could be finding ways to buck the trend of assigning those newbies to the students who need experienced, amazing educators the most. Maybe it means rethinking teacher assignments. Maybe it means making a real commitment to mentoring or even co-teaching.

If your school is really brave, maybe it means spending a chunk of time mapping out what it would take for 90% of the students entering third grade as struggling readers to meet or exceed proficiency standards by the end of the year. This might look like de-emphasizing growth-only metrics that look good for school accountability ratings, but harm so many of our amazing student students who – according to TNTP’s 2018 groundbreaking Opportunity Myth report - come to school every day, do exactly what they are asked to do, and still need remedial coursework because they never reached a standard of proficiency– because they never had to.

As a parent, getting all the things on the supply checklist still matters. But what matters even more is the checklist in my brain of my child’s expertise, superpowers, interests, struggles, and joys. How am I making sure my children’s teachers collect all of these items?

It means almost nothing to me that their teachers acknowledge the receipt of two tissue boxes that will be gone in a week. But it means everything to me that they acknowledge the responsibility of truly understanding that who my kids are comes with setting the stage for excellence to make children’s hopes and dreams a reality for a lifetime.

At best, the way we currently prepare for back-to-school season gets everyone ready for schooling. But I long for a world where all the time and energy we put into prepping for back-to-school truly prepares our children for an education.


Colin Seale

Colin Seale is the founder/CEO of thinkLaw, an award-winning resource that helps educators teach critical thinking to all students using real-life legal cases and the president of the Charter School Association of Nevada. His new book Thinking Like a Lawyer: A Framework for Teaching Critical Thinking to All Students is out April 2020.

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