Life 101: Life Lessons from a Decade of Teaching Teens

Note: Check out the interview Stuart Mills conducted with me at his blog, Unlock the Door! He asked some really thought-provoking questions. And plan on coming back Monday to read Stuart’s awesome guest post right here.

“The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.” ~ Tom Bodett

I’ve been a high school teacher for about a decade now, teaching AP government and economics to high school seniors.

I have also been blessed to have an ongoing relationship with many of my former students who have continued (on and off) to visit and update me on their lives since graduating.

I’ve been touched by the number that have shared their personal histories, both successes and heart aches, some of them gut-wrenching. It was a deeply meaningful but unexpected part of becoming a teacher.

There are lessons to be learned from watching the young and inexperienced struggle with the art of living.

Following, are a few of those lessons.

Four Life Lessons Learned as a High School Teacher

Lesson #1: Parenting Matters


I’ve heard stories from students, sometimes years after graduating about parents who were cold and distant, unreasonable and demanding. Some of my kids grew up with shame and ridicule. Some were called unspeakable names by those who should have protected them from such verbal vomit spewed at them by others.

Some of my students don’t know what it feels like to be hugged by a mom or tucked into bed by a dad or told how special they are, how much they matter, how deeply loved they will always be.

They only know cold sternness, distant authoritarianism, unpredictable anger that sizzles and snaps beneath the surface of unflinching eyes of disdain or contempt.

The Lesson

Parenting matters. There is no success in life more important. No success, it’s been said as a matter of fact, can compensate for failure where it counts most, in the home.

It is in the home that a sort of microcosm of life plays out. It is supposed to be the solace away from the storms of life. It’s supposed to be the one place on the planet where there is the emotional safety of acceptance and love and kindness, where mistakes can be made without fear of condemnation or ridicule, where, in short, we are free to practice living.

The quality of the parent can have a profound influence on the quality of the child. So the greatest work you will ever perform will be the work you do on you. The better the person you become (kinder, loving, patient, self-controlled, accepting, encouraging), the better parent you will be and the more long-lasting the positive influence you will have on generations to come.

Lesson #2: People are resilient


I’m no longer shocked like I was in the beginning of my career by students I’ve come to adore, respect and admire when they tell me about the shameful way their parents parented.

I used to be puzzled how those who struck me as such wonderful kids with amazing qualities could have possibly come from homes where they were bullied and mistreated or ignored by parents. And yet here they were, blooming in spectacular ways.

The Lesson

While a parent’s impact can be profound, I’ve learned that people can be very resilient too. People often bounce back from heart ache and despair, even abuse, to reshape their own attitudes and beliefs and futures. Understandably, they sometime require professional help. But help is available and hurtles are cleared and happiness enjoyed.

I’ve discovered that we are not our DNA, that we are not necessarily the genetic extensions of our parents either. I’ve learned that we have the ability to choose who we want to be and how we want to live. I’ve learned that we can break the chords that bind us to our pasts and family cultures, no matter how dysfunctional.

How we were raised was not a choice we made. How we continue to live is.

Lesson #3: But sometimes they’re not resilient at all


I’ve also seen kids shrivel and wilt. Or they turn to sex or alcohol or other stupor-inducing drugs to medicate their pain to the background of consciousness. Others inflict physical pain on themselves or others in an ultimately futile effort at awakening from the sense that they have become numb from the inside out, that nothing anymore matters much.

Some people are just fragile. Their hearts bleed easily. Their emotional lives beat erratically below a thinly-stretched surface of skin.

When bad things happen, they crumble. When annoying things happen, they crumble. When inconvenient things happen, they crumble. When almost anything happens, they fall to pieces because the stress and strain of living under the thumb at home makes the smallest unwelcomed changes in life seem like caverns of impossibility to endure, and they crumble.

Some, on the other hand, disappear deep inside themselves, seemingly swallowed into a sort of numbing self-protective womb of their own creation. It may seem on the surface to be stoic and strong. But the emotionless vacuum is really the scab over a wound that won’t heal. The numbness is the emotional equivalent of getting drunk to forget and not feel the pain anymore.

But the pain keeps throbbing.

The Lesson

While even the most resilient can bounce back pretty quickly, there is still a tender side to almost all of us. We can bruise easily if hit in the right spot.

We can become stronger as we find courage and inner boldness still beating faintly inside. But we can also reach out to others in emotional turmoil and just be there. Our strength can sometimes be enough for others to lift themselves to higher emotional ground.

Or it can provide them with the courage to reach out in help to others trained to help in such circumstances. Inner strength can be developed. Emotional numbness can be melted. Happiness and joy can become a daily part of living.

But it often takes a person as a catalyst, someone who cares, who listens and truly hears to ignite the desire to travel that sometimes difficult road of personal growth.

Lesson #4: Hard work can make up for a poor start


I’ve known kids who came from abusive homes. Dads who manipulate and control. Moms who belittle and withhold affection.

I’ve seen kids, by the sheer force of their wills, overcome such horrible circumstances and shape a high school experience for themselves that was extremely rewarding and successful.

I’ve known children who got little from their parents but gave so much to others, joining the Red Cross Club and other on-campus service groups.

I’ve known students whose parents called them dumb and stupid but who proved they weren’t by hard work: making honor role, high GPAs and Honor Society membership only underscored the point.

I’ve met kids who stayed up nights to do homework, who pulled all-nighters before major tests, who sacrificed so much to prepare for the rest of their lives. They continue to impress me deeply by their dedication to excellence.

The Lesson

Some people start far behind life’s starting line. Their beginnings may not have been likely to predict future greatness.

But then they commit and dedicate themselves to a desired end. They focus their efforts and sacrifice immediate gratification of TV and parties and hanging out with their friends at all hours for a better future.

They join clubs and get into leadership and volunteer for a cause and take hard classes and study and prepare and learn and grow and do amazing things, sometimes under some shockingly difficult circumstances.

The human will can overcome huge barriers to living life more fully.


High school is a different sort of place. It is filled with social and emotional and educational landmines waiting to go off. It can be tricky to find a safe way through the battlefield it sometimes seems to become.

But in all their inexperience and relative immaturity, there is a soul that beats deeply in the lives of students who struggle to figure it all out. I hope they are learning for themselves these lessons they are teaching me.

If they do learn them, their lives will be better for it.

I know mine is for knowing them.

Your Turn

  • What life lessons did you learn as a student?
  • If you’re a teacher, what life lessons would you add?
  • What do you think about the lessons I picked up?
  • I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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