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I started my career as a teacher driven by a desire to help support young people and create a positive, lasting impact on the world. I think that’s how most teachers start out their careers.
After a mere five years, I found myself disheartened and disappointed by the system. Rather than developing lifelong learners and inspiring futures, I felt like a cog in a massive machine, churning out graduates with the goal of simply earning a high school diploma. We were pushing students more rapidly toward a finish line that didn’t feel meaningful.
I found myself asking: Is this really the point of high school?
I could have left teaching, but I didn’t. Instead, I found a better path, one that felt much closer to my original vision for being an educator and a far cry away from the diploma and test score factories where I started my career.
I began working at a different public school. Now in my fifth year teaching at Summit Tahoma High School in San Jose and 10th year as a teacher, here’s what I’ve learned: If we want students to thrive — if we want to truly prepare them to live fulfilled, purposeful lives — then we have to alter our understanding of what the “finish line” is and therefore change the way we structure our schools and measure success.
In short, we have to redefine the point of school.
We’re redefining success by asking our alumni about their lives after graduation. Our measurement of success is how they’re doing in life after they leave. Did we prepare them for life? Do they have strong relationships? A sense of purpose? A strong community? Financial independence?
When I focus on the well-being of my students first, and things like test scores and diplomas second, my entire experience as an educator changes for the better.
At Summit Tahoma, I’m getting to really know a group of students over four years through my mentor group. Every student at Summit has a mentor — normally a teacher — and a mentor group. We work together over the four years at school. We meet daily to talk about day-to-day life but also to work toward goals in school and life. We explore colleges together and share challenges knowing our group will support us.
My first mentee group, the Blue Strips, went from not knowing one another to being a family. Over four years, we got to really know one another. I wasn’t just teaching them Spanish; with this group of students, I was helping them with English, science, history, whatever life threw at them. It’s powerful. And now, I’m starting that over again with a new group of freshmen. It’s exciting to be building those relationships again — especially now that I know exactly what’s possible.
It’s not just the educator experience that transforms. The same is true for our students.
In a survey of all Summit alumni from 2007 to 2016, we asked about their lives now, and more than 70% reported high levels of overall well-being. And about 55% of our alumni have completed a bachelor’s degree to date. This tells me that when you shift the emphasis away from our traditional conception of success and focus instead on what really matters, you see better outcomes across the board.
Earning a high school diploma is important, and we work hard to ensure that our students earn a diploma that ensures they are eligible for college. But this is just a milestone. It’s not the finish line.
The point of high school shouldn’t be a diploma.
The point of high school — the point of all school — should be closer to the reasons teachers start teaching in the first place: to support students, to inspire futures and to create fulfilled adults.
If we do that, not only might we change the trajectory of the teaching profession, but we might actually prepare our country’s young people to lead lives of purpose and meaning, filled with happiness, community and stability.
Laura Ochoa is a Spanish teacher for grades 9-12 at Summit Tahoma High School in San Jose.
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