By Lindsey Canny
“What’s the point of learning this?” “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” “Why don’t schools teach us how to do things like pay taxes or change a tire?”
I have a feeling that somewhere out there there are pages of papyrus etched with hieroglyphs of these exact questions from ancient Egyptian teenagers hidden in the desert or a cave, like an educational version of the Dead Sea Scrolls. God knows, as a high school English teacher, I have gotten these questions every single year of my professional life.
To be fair, though, the teenagers have a point. They are going to be living independently as adults within four years, and things like knowing how to cook dinner without setting the stove on fire, having reliable modes of transportation, and doing laundry that doesn’t turn pink because a red shirt was thrown in with white socks are vital information to living successfully without looking like a failure at adulting.
Here’s the problem: I am an English teacher. I am lucky, in that when it comes to the first two questions on the list, I can say that English is the language in which every single student communicates on a daily basis and that improving writing and comprehension skills is totally an “adulting” skill.
Nobody wants to see their doctor or the company manager screw up the difference between ‘their,’ ‘they’re,’ and ‘there.’ As far as writing essays goes, no, most people won’t be doing literary analyses on the symbolism in The Great Gatsby in their work or home lives, but odds are that these kids will at some point need to gather research and create a presentation for a company meeting, or will need to write a clear business objective and strategy for sales. I can teach them the tools they need to do that.
But I can’t teach them taxes. I don’t have time for it in my workday. It’s not in my learning objectives. It’s math, and I suck at math. Also, I pay someone to do my taxes—because they are now more complicated than when I worked at Piggly Wiggly in high school.
When I did work at Piggly Wiggly, though, my favorite teachers in the whole world taught me how to fill out my 1040 EZ: my dad and my mom. And that’s who it should be.
When a student comes to me and complains about not learning how to do taxes, there is a series of questions I always ask them: First, “Did you ask your parents how to do taxes?” The most common answer is “No.”
The second most common answer is, “They have someone do their taxes for them.” To this, I ask, “Did you ask your parents if you could go with them when they have their taxes done to see how it works?” The most common answer is “No.”
The next thing I ask is if they had gone to the library to pick up a tax booklet and a tax form to see what they look like, and to read the instructions. Again, the most common answer is “No,” (and sometimes this also includes the response that they don’t go to the library, which is a whole different article for another day.) The last thing I ask is if they looked up how to fill in a tax form on the internet. The most common answer is “No.”
I know that it is really hard to fit these extra things in. I truly do understand that there are only so many hours in a family’s day; and that there are jobs and activities and responsibilities pulling every single member in all different directions each day.
Each of those activities and responsibilities, though, are small teachable moments. Just like a parent patiently shows their toddler how to loop shoelaces into rabbit ears each day until the child can tie on their own, a teenager can be taken down to the laundry room for five minutes each day to see how the washing machine works: Turn this dial to HOT for hot water. Set to HEAVY for fabrics like towels and jeans. Then push the dial in and add detergent.
Sometimes, though, getting everyone in the same place at the same time is truly an insurmountable task. Sometimes that five minutes a day doesn’t exist. Luckily, approximately 95 percent of teenagers have access to a teacher every minute of every day: their smartphone. Humans now have the expanse of human knowledge in their pocket, but unfortunately, TikTok and Among Us are far more addictive than the United States’ tax code.
Sometimes the best teachable moment is showing the kid where outside resources are that can help them learn the things they need to do that we may not have time to teach ourselves. Even as an English teacher, I try to at least help them with that.
One thing that might be deterring these teens, however, is the ridicule they potentially face for not knowing how to do a skill that someone older than them never taught them in the first place. Instead of scoffing at a 16-year-old kid not knowing how to make a grilled cheese sandwich, either show them how to do it or direct them to a YouTube video that could help.
Parents and teachers are both responsible for giving a young person a full and complete education, and it benefits both parties for these kids to be competent in both practical skills and academic skills. After all, they’ll be the ones running the world and taking care of us someday, and I definitely want those people to know how to “adult” correctly.
Lindsey Canny is a paid columnist for the Metro Wire. She chooses her own topics and her opinions do not necessarily represent the staff of the Metro Wire. She is a UWSP alum who works as a teacher in Stevens Point.