6 Life Lessons Learned from Teaching High School

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Post written By Ken Wert.

“While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.” ~ Unknown

As a 10 year veteran high school teacher, I’ve spent a lot of time working in the trenches with teens who struggle to find their way in life.

I’ve found that nestled in the daily grind of that youthful struggle are six fundamental lessons of life that we would all do well to remember as we live out our own lives learning and growing and groping our own way through it.

Lesson #1: People want to fit in

There are a dizzying number of styles, personalities and character types on the campus where I teach.

But what I’ve found very interesting is that those who dress similarly, or listen to the same music, or have the same hobbies or interests tend to congregate together. Those who think similarly tend to find kindred spirits and friendship in each other.

Even those who make a point to be independent thinkers, free spirits stomping their own paths through life, and for whom “conformity” is a 4-letter word, are startlingly similar to those who likewise claim to be different and unlike everyone else.

In other words, they reject the mainstream and all its group-acceptance and create their own sub-mainstream group-acceptance.

It is the human condition of almost everyone to want to be accepted, to fit in with others of the group with which they identify. They want to feel like they belong, like there’s somewhere on the planet that feels like home.

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be liked or wanting a place to put up your feet and call home. That’s normal and natural. But sometimes people look for acceptance in ways or with people and groups that are destructive.

I’ve known many kids who let themselves get too intimate too early because of their unfulfilled need for parental intimacy at home. Many of my kids over the years have looked for the sense of family, of acceptance, of belonging in a gang when it wasn’t provided by a mom and dad.

The bottom line?

There is great good we can do by opening up our groups and circle of friends to others. Friendships are forged and people are blessed and lives are changed.

Lesson #2: Fitting in can harm the pursuit of happiness

I’ve known kids, trying desperately to be accepted by others, conform to standards not their own. I’ve seen heart-broken girls crying for allowing boys to do things they wish they hadn’t allowed. I’ve seen guys whose grades and future opportunities began rapidly sliding away as they started using drugs and skipping school to fit in. I’ve seen personalities and attitudes change in the process of conforming to a group dynamic.

And it’s all so sad.

The problems begin when the desire to fit in trumps values and standards and sends us down ugly paths that corrupt and undermine what we’re comfortable with for the sake of being accepted by a crowd that doesn’t share our standards.

Making even small compromises to our values always leaves us diminished and emptier than before. So don’t make them. If you have already compromised, return to your values and start to honor them and protect them and practice living with integrity to them. It is only in upholding our values that we begin to feel the power of integrity.

No matter how much emotional camouflage we hide them behind, the constant violation of principle-centered values will slowly gnaw at us from the inside in our quiet moments … until we decide to return to them or totally snuff them out with indifference to self and family and conscience.

Lesson #3: Outward expressions do not always paint an accurate internal portrait

Many people are good at presenting a pretty picture of happiness while their insides are infected with gut-churning pain. But if you pay attention, you can catch the signs.

I remember one student who from the outside seemed to be about as happy as most. But it turned out that she had been abused by a family member for years and was blamed for the legal complications he incurred for the abuse. Her life was in turmoil and no one really knew.

It’s important to look for the clues: changes in personality, changes in activity and interests, changes in sleep patterns. And it’s important to reach out to those who are struggling. If we don’t reach out, who will? If everyone thought someone else will step forward and fill the need, no needs would ever be filled and the world would sink in its own stagnation.

Instead, look around. Open your eyes. Get in tune with the beat of others’ hearts. And then reach out. Let them know you care, that if they want, you’re there to talk. It can make a difference. It can make a huge difference. It can change the world, one heart, one person, one soul at a time.

That’s exactly what Peter did here when he solicited my advice (along with others) for “Struggling Sam” back in the middle of November, 2011. It was a touching example of that compassion and kindness and desire to help others that shone through as he reached out to other to reach out to Sam.

Lesson #4: People matter

The idea that people are important, that they matter has also been reinforced over the last decade of teaching high school.

For those youth who have had significant struggles with life, it was usually a person (a friend, a boy or girl friend, a teacher, a counselor) who became the catalyst to the changes necessary to lift the fog of their disillusionment with life to see light again and experience happiness and joy once more.

Badly parented youth have shared stories with me of their loneliness and depression, their bitter rage and insecurities until that one special person reached out and stepped into their lives and lifted them by force of their love and compassion and friendship. It made all the difference. It has even saved lives.

Lesson #5: External motivation can’t overcome internal apathy

No amount of external pressure or incentives or motivational speeches can do much for a person who just doesn’t care.

I know, I’ve tried. I’ve given some of my best motivational speeches, shared my most inspiring examples and reached out to students whose grades were in the dumpster. And for some, it just didn’t matter. There was no internal drive at all. They didn’t care. They didn’t believe caring would make a difference.

If you feel like life is meaningless, after all, why would you look for meaning? If you believe you are dumb, why would you try to learn something new? If you “know” you’ll be dead by the time you turn 21, why would you plan for long-term success?

I’m not a fatalist, however. I do believe we can touch lives. But the touching has to be in the area of helping them see a light, a reason to question their beliefs and dislodge apathy from their hearts and minds. That has to be the first step before the next can be taken. They have to awaken to the prospect of the possible. Really, we all have to care and care enough to initiate change in our lives to counter the powerful drag of inertia.

How do you do that? Well, it’s very different for different people. But if you can catch a vision of possibility and see yourself stepping into that possibility, then desire can start to be given breath to.

So daydream of something better. See yourself there, experiencing it, however unbelievably at first. Ask yourself how it could be accomplished. Imagine yourself taking the proper steps to accomplish it. Feel the desire well up inside. Feed it. Then take a step toward your dream.

And it won’t be long before the spark of desire and hope begins to burn a little brighter until it is the conflagration of passion.

Lesson #6: Some things simply don’t matter

I once had a student who literally got into a physical fight with her best friend during lunch because they both had purchased the same exact prom dress and neither were willing to take it back. Neither were allowed to go to prom because of the fight.

I’ve known kids who ended friendships because one was friends with someone the other didn’t like. I’ve watched kids jump off the proverbial cliff because someone told someone else that they said they didn’t like her makeup or thought she was mean to her boyfriend or some other ultimately trivial matter.

Kids get in fights and end relationships over a look, an expression, a glance, or a word.

The media inundates us with trivia and speaks of it in tones as though it mattered. Perhaps we’ve lost the ability to discern between significant and insignificant things. Or perhaps we’ve always drowned ourselves in trivial affairs.

Either way, we do ourselves, each other, and life itself a disservice by making mountains out of molehills


They say that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. I agree. As I interact in class and teach them what I know about the art of living, I’ve learned the greater lesson.

And for that, I’m grateful.

Your Turn

We would love to know what life lessons you learned from school or from your school-aged years. Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Ken Wert is a high school teacher and personal development blogger at Meant to be Happy where he inspires readers to live with purpose, act with character, think with clarity and grow with courage. Follow him on Twitter at KenWertM2bH and subscribe to his free monthly newsletter and receive his free eBook, called A Walk Through Happiness

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