It’s important to share that you’re not perfect

It’s hard to really remember what it was like to be a preteen or teenager. It’s even harder to imagine being one today. The drama, the pressure, the energy that goes into social media.

We wish they could just set it aside and focus on what’s important, i.e. academics. But if we want to engage and connect with kids, we need to invest time seeing things from their perspective.

I recently read an excerpt about how living in “the age of the app” is affecting teenagers. According to the research, many teens today feel tremendous pressure to create a perfect, packaged online identity.

Some experts, including Charlotte Blease at University College Dublin, also believe that many teens today suffer from “Facebook depression,” a low feeling that results from seeing how happy and popular your peers seem to be.

The combined effect is that when our students feel depressed or discouraged, they feel even more alone — and more like failures — than we did as teenagers. Who can understand you or even want to know you, if everyone else is perfect?

That’s why it’s incredibly important that our students know we are regular people with warts and scars. When I tell stories on myself in class, they’re usually stories about things that went wrong — like getting cut from every sports team in school, struggling with new parenthood or getting an important date wrong. (All true)

Last week, when I was talking about the powerful impact of ostracism in AP Psych, I asked my students if any of them had ever experienced being intentionally left out. Unsurprisingly, no one wanted to share such a painful memory, so I told my story.

In fourth grade, two mean girls got all 13 of my female classmates to ignore me for an entire day. No one would eat lunch with me, hang out with me at recess, sit next to me during an assembly or walk home with me. Who knows what I did to slight those two, but I still remember that day.

When I told the story, many of the students nodded in understanding. They knew what it was like, even if they weren’t prepared to admit it. A few looked shocked.

Did my students need to know this about me — that at one point in my life, I felt like the world’s biggest loser with no friends? Not really, but maybe the fact that I survived will reassure them just a little bit.

I know some teachers find it a lot more comfortable to keep a professional distance, or to tell only stories that make them look good — “I worked hard, and I got into a good college” — but sharing painful stories not only gives students valuable perspective, it helps build relationships.

And relationships, we know, support students’ academic success by making students feel comfortable, take intellectual risks and even ask questions in class.

I wouldn’t want to try being a teenager today. It’s the least I can do to let them know that my journey wasn’t always easy either.