Two concurrent crises are playing out in America’s public high schools: an exodus of teachers, and a breakdown in adolescent mental health. One fix for both, a return to engaging literacy instruction, would be simple and cheap. Rhode Island is the state to pioneer the change.
Twenty years ago, I found nirvana teaching at Rogers High School in Newport, R.I. I was a newly minted educator, driven to the profession by childhood trauma. While experiencing severe abuse at home, I had found solace in my teachers and the fascinating books they put in my hands. Rogers’ English department empowered me to give the same gift to my students, who slide into my DMs with thank-yous to this day. But teacher friends in Newport say all that has changed. With the current emphasis on data, classroom engagement is a fond memory.
The nationwide shift from teaching kids to testing them accounts for the aforementioned crises. PBS reports that 44 percent of public schools will have teaching vacancies at the start of the school year. In her forthcoming book “Educational Folly: Teacher Well-Being and the Chaos of American Schooling” Dr. Lisa Gonsalves, chair of the Curriculum and Instruction Department in the UMass Boston College of Education and Human Development, explains why. “Many standardized testing policies diminish teacher autonomy in ways that hurt their teaching and damage their personal well-being … [this] leaves teachers anxious, frustrated and stressed.”
I experienced this when I transitioned from teaching in Rhode Island’s schools to North Carolina’s. In the former, my colleagues and I shared a goal of understanding and meeting our students’ needs. In the latter, the driving force was just that: force. Students were to meet the state standards, no matter their starting point in terms of literacy and mental health. The approach was punishing and demoralizing; it drove me out of the classroom. Today, in my work as a certified teen life coach, kids nationwide describe the same experience.
Through this lens, the adolescent mental health emergency makes sense. For nine months of the year, most teens spend a third of their waking hours in school. If school feels not only uninspiring but actively punitive, student well-being plummets. When kids are pressured to excel in subjects taught through memorization and regurgitation on a test, they lack motivation, which leads to poor grades, which brings not only external consequences but also flagging self-worth. A return to student-centered literacy instruction offers a solution.
Teenagers can love reading. The success of BookTok proves it. But in school, book joy dies after fifth grade. In my work over the years, I’ve informally polled young people across the country about their reading experiences, and their responses tell the same story: Reading was fun in elementary school, when the teacher read picture books with funny voices. In middle school, if you were lucky, the librarian might slip you a good book. But from ninth grade on, likable books disappear, replaced by the dusty old classics. Consequently, from ninth grade on, many teens stop reading.
The approach we used in Newport was effective because it met teens’ core developmental needs for autonomy, self-reflection, and connection. We had classroom libraries and money to buy selections made by students, which we read aloud and discussed as a group. We taught writing via students’ reactions to how the plotlines connected to their lives. The results were both quantifiable, with dramatic upticks in students’ reading scores and attendance, and relational, as our classrooms became joyful micro-communities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found school connectedness to be a central factor in supporting students’ mental health. It works the same for teachers.
States across the country report thousands of youth missing from public schools. Districts are desperately seeking support for kids’ behavioral issues. But on a recent trip to Providence, I found different norms.
Visiting the RISD museum, I stood next to a teen boy and his girlfriend. The boy turned to me, a stranger, to ask, “What does this art mean?” We read the instructive plaque together; he pulled out his phone to Google the artist. On a Sunday afternoon, these local kids chose intellectual curiosity.
Indeed, in its recently published 2023 Factbook, Rhode Island KidsCount noted that Rhode Island has a lower than average “disconnection rate,” the percentage of youth neither working nor in school. While the nation’s average is 7 percent, Rhode Island’s is only 3 percent.
When high school educators can teach reading driven by students’ interests, school becomes a joyful place. Teens’ psycho-social needs are met, and teachers remember why they joined the profession. This fix is available for the low cost of voter support, parent calls to school administrators, and cheap trade paperbacks. Given its pioneering spirit and educational history, my vote is on Rhode Island to lead the change.
Cyndy Etler is a high school teacher turned certified teen life coach and young adult author based in Charlotte, N.C. She has been featured on NPR, CNN, Lifetime Television, Newsday, and other outlets.