Get to know your non-conformists

illustration by Aligory Isotope

illustration by Aligory Isotope


Not my favorite word. But working in a public school, I often feel surrounded by folks who think it’s very important to impress upon kids the importance of conforming to schedules, to rules, to dress codes, to methods of learning, to desks all in a row, to staying seated bell-to-bell. It puts me in mind of dozens of kids of varying size, stature, gait, hair color, complexion, vision, manual dexterity, vocabulary, experiences, musical tastes and cramming them into a one-size-fits-all school uniform.

I’m not the first to notice that education the way we do it these days was structured to produce workers in the industrial age. Robots, they were creating, to operate assembly lines. That’s not what we need today. We need innovative thinkers, creative thinkers, but we rub it out of them by second or third grade, making them color inside the lines with the “correct” colors, then prepping them for standardized tests.

What I like the most about my journalism classes is that they draw the unique, the creative, the purposeful. Some students are drawn to the journalism room not really knowing why, and we nurture their ideas, their unique perspectives. Kids who might never have spoken to each other in any other situation find themselves gathered around the staff meeting table or leaning back in their mismatched rolling chairs around their iMacs in debates about any number of topics. Bottom line is that they respect each other.

The work ethic and the creativity and the tolerance for others are what they are built of. What do I care if their shoulders are showing or their hair is green? And I have learned to hate desks all in a row. Desks shouldn’t conform any more than students should.

I have the brightest kids, and they brighten even further by being allowed to explore. Students can debate with me about dress codes, bringing fast-food beverages on campus after lunch or showing up late because she had to take a box of found kittens to the humane society and then had four flat tires and had to hobble in her car to the nearby Shop ‘n Go to air them up one more time. OK, that last wasn’t hypothetical.

Yeah, she probably should have been in school instead or had a parent call in for her or at least let someone know.

But it seems as soon as a student breaks a law, being overly tardy, missing class entirely for an invalid reason (according to law), displaying piercings or showing too much shoulder, which goes against dress code, they conform to the rule-breaker mold according to those who keep such records. Those who keep such records rarely have the opportunity (or the desire?) to see beyond what they are in charge of seeing.

But these students are complex human beings made up of brilliance, ideas, desires, opinions that should never be made to conform. The office may see a girl with attendance problems. I see a brilliant artist who draws things you only see in your dreams and can write an argument on almost anything. Her favorite topics may be anti-religions and space travel, but she’s also our go-to person for engineering and nuclear questions, too.

Sure, there are rules that we must have to incorporate some structure. What I ask is that we reduce those to what we really need, interact with students on a level so that we can appreciate their originality, give them some room to explore and have choices in their learning and stop trying to mold them into what we think society expects them to be.

About teachjournalism
I am a high school teacher of journalism, technology and reading. I advise the school's newspaper and yearbook, both student-led publications. Documenting and sharing my experiences is a way of reflecting to improve my own work and and inviting commentary so that we might all benefit. I believe, as I tell my students each year, that we all learn from each other.

4 Responses to Get to know your non-conformists

  1. Jon H. says:

    Beautiful. The News Room was always that quiet haven – that place of safety within the school where one felt truly free from the pressures of life. A place to simply create, void of any forced compliance to someone else’s ideology, whether it be political, religious, or otherwise. I am overjoyed that this intellectual sanctuary of sorts still stands for the young minds of Duncan High School to find themselves in.

  2. thefeatheredsleep says:

    Brilliant post!!

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