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What is it like to be a high school student today?

SNN kicks off series on student voice panel

Editor’s note: While School News Network always prioritizes student voice in our articles, we know there is so much more to tell. We believe to truly tell the stories that need to be told, we should first and foremost elevate students’ ideas, opinions and experiences. We want to know: What is school really like for them? What do they enjoy? What needs to change? What are issues that need to be addressed?

We spoke with 10 high schoolers from seven of the districts we cover, urban, suburban and rural, to get their thoughts on what their everyday experiences are like. This is the introductory installment of six parts of our conversation with them.

During the nearly 80-minute conversation in a Kent ISD meeting room, several themes emerged. A prominent one: Students feel a huge amount of pressure to excel and they want to be seen as more than test scores. 

“I think that a lot of people forget that we’re still kids. … We’re not adults. I think they forget that,” said McKenna, a senior. “High school is supposed to prepare us to be adults, but we’re not yet. So, like, let us be kids.”

Several students talked at length about mental health, and the need for more and better resources for themselves and their many peers dealing with anxiety, depression and other struggles.

“I think if our school was to better promote school counselors or resources where you can talk about your mental health … Kids will feel more comfortable going to people rather than suffering alone.” said Liz, a senior. 

Several students also talked about how detrimental they believe social media has been for youth. 

“It’s important to remember that social media is a business. It’s not there to help you, it’s there to make money,” said Karl, a senior. “They’re gonna try as many ways as possible to keep you on. And that’s definitely affecting us.”

It was clear that these students wanted to talk and valued the opportunity to speak candidly about their experiences. 

SNN: In one word, what is it like to be a high school student today?

Liz, senior

“Overwhelming” — Liz, senior: “We’re not just there for the academics. We are also there to socialize and some people are in sports or extracurriculars. So, everything on top of being in the classroom can become too much for us.”

Kelvin, sophomore

“Stressful” — Kelvin, sophomore

Kerim, junior

“Hindsight” — Kerim, junior: “Maybe I shouldn’t have gone out that day, and maybe I should have studied or maybe I should have, like, forgiven someone. … Maybe I could have done better on this test if I put in a little bit of extra effort. Or maybe this friendship wouldn’t have been ruined if (I) could have been mature and talked about it.”

McKenna, senior

“Informative” — McKenna, senior: “Obviously, because of the academic aspect. We’re learning about things, but I also think it can be personally informative. You learn what your strengths are, what your weaknesses are, the type of people you like to be around, the type of situations you like being in. For me, I discovered that I have social anxiety in big groups and that’s not something that I kind of knew.”

Joel, junior

“Monotonous” — Joel, junior: “I go day in and day out and am (subjected) to the same things. There’s not much to school except five minutes between classes that I can actually enjoy and say hi to my friends and then just go to the classroom and be taught information.”

Kaymin, junior

“Pressure” — Kaymin, junior: “Each student is a unique individual person, but no matter what your situation is, there’s always that pressure to succeed, whether it’s from educators, peers or any other staff members. It’s just kind of always there.”

Karl, senior

“Mindset” — Karl, senior: “Pretty much what you put in is what you’re going to get out. If you think it’s stressful, then it’s going to become stressful. If you think it’s monotonous, it’s going to become monotonous, and it’s up to you to change. It can be whatever you want it to be. It can be fun or can be boring. It’s just whatever you put into it.”

Emma, senior

“Eye-opening” — Emma, senior: “It’s a time in your life where you’re learning a lot about yourself and (it’s a time of) self-discovery.”

Terrell, junior

“Complicated” — Terrell, junior: “I feel like depending on who you are as a person, you’re trying to build friendships, as well as trying to keep your school schedules and just having problems of your own.”

Aric, senior

“Draining” Aric, senior: “There’s just those nights where you just don’t get a lot of sleep and then you’re in school the next day and you’re just not there.”

Next installment: What are the issues affecting students’ mental health, and how do schools need to do a better job of addressing them? 

Thank you to The New York Times for inspiring the format for this panel, which we used to elevate the voices of students.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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