Senioritis: The Disease of High School Seniors that Must be Cured

by Dr. David Mandler

“I really do not want to do work, but my parents force me, as I am the oldest child, and have to be a role model for my siblings.” So begins one of the responses on the anonymous survey my second-term seniors have recently filled out about what it means to be a second-term senior. To be fair, the anonymous respondent adds in parenthesis, as if fueled by the insistent voice of his or her superego, “I also feel the responsibility to do so.”

While I have taught students on various levels from high school freshmen to college seniors for fifteen years, this is only my second year of teaching high school seniors. Last year, some of my fellow teachers had informed me of a terrible and regularly recurring illness that decimates Stuyvesant seniors in their second term called senioritis. Yet, my colleagues’ message hardly made me prepared to meet its unsavory effects in person, much less find the most efficacious cure for it. I must confess that, for me, the most disheartening cases have not been those of students who have been doing poorly throughout their years at Stuyvesant and then decide to cut class or simply not submit their assignments as seniors.  In a way, while truly saddening and somewhat infuriating, that kind of behavior is the natural blossoming of a flower that has been eaten up by the worm of unpreparedness, indifference or conscious rebellion. Rather, I find that the most discomforting cases are those of students who, for three and a half years had appeared to have internalized the study skills necessary to do well and have, in fact, done well in school by the measure of tests and essays, only to discard the mask of studiousness as soon as their college acceptance letter arrives.

Why does this happen? Could it be because the overwhelming majority of my seniors, 68 out of 82, had thought before they became seniors that they would have to do very little work as second term seniors, and so, they decide to do what they (often erroneously) think is the bare minimum required to pass the class? Or do the so-called solid students stop reading, doing homework, and participating in discussions on a regular basis because 64 out of 74 of my senior students agree that most second term seniors think that teachers who want second term seniors to do as much as before are unfair? Thus, it’s the teacher’s fault if a second-term senior is on the brink of failing the class as a result of poor (or no) work—and so, the teacher should be responsible for saving the student from losing that prestigious scholarship or spot in an Ivy League school?

Be it as it may, Houston, we have a problem! And as Summer roars into our lives (I deliberately omit mentioning Spring since it has clearly been downsized), the conditions for the spread of senioritis are increasingly in place.  A fatalistic solution would be to accept that senioritis is inevitable (even understandable) and let anyone who breathes the air of our classrooms for as many times as school policy dictates get a 65. Another equally anti-educational solution would be to give no homework whatsoever in senior year and do the limited range of things that one can do without outside classroom preparation right in class. The list of unacceptable solutions of this type is too long for me to enumerate.

Then, what could be the solution?

Surely, I understand that seniors who have just been accepted into college may feel it is time to relax. In fact, 70 out of 82 respondents on the survey have said that they felt this way. “It is a privilege of seniors that should be a right,” as one senior put it. I say I understand why students who have been in the pressure cooker and grade-driven environment of Stuyvesant High School would feel it was time to relax in the second term of their senior year because there is nothing wrong with relaxing. The school calendar allows for that. Yet, there is something fundamentally wrong when students, who in as few as 140 days will be college freshmen, think that they have reached their potential as scholars in the various fields of the sciences and humanities that comprise their course load as seniors and, therefore, can drastically pull away from studying.

By senior year, such extrinsic motivations as praise, good grades, college acceptances, and the bribe of a trip to Cancun (or the corner grocery store), while perhaps necessary, should not be sufficient. Nor should the threat of failure—however defined—be the only force to keep students motivated to engage consistently in the daily tasks necessary to do well in class. Rather, students should not only be given opportunities to recognize the value of the tedious mechanics necessary to master fundamental study skills, but more importantly, of the genuine intellectual pleasure to be found in the transformative educational experiences the school (should) offer. Yes, one almost sure way to cure senioritis is to let seniors know that they are expected to continue doing the preparatory work necessary to expand their potential as scholars even as we—and here, I mean teachers—occasionally remind and demonstrate to our students in our special ways that the educational journey students are taking at Stuyvesant High School is actually a very pleasurable intellectual activity and, beside providing a term’s worth of preparation to the mostly self-, textbook-, and lecture-driven environment of outstanding colleges/universities, is intrinsically valuable.

Seniors—and future seniors! Instead of obsessing over being a role model to your younger siblings just because your parents told you so, take a deep breath sometimes and allow for your innate curiosity about how and why the world works the way it does once again take possession of you. In finding out the answers and asking new questions, you may very well begin to discover how you connect to it all.

Inevitably, you will then become a true role model as you develop a self-driven motivation to learn from the texts, problems, music, art, and equations assigned to you as much as you possibly can before high school is forever over.

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NOTE: The above article was commissioned by the editors at Stuyvesant High School’s student newspaper, The Spectator. It has appeared in the April 22nd issue with the first paragraph accidentally omitted. While I address senioritis as a phenomenon at Stuyvesant High School, I have no doubt that it is present in other schools as well. My intent in writing this piece was to initiate a constructive conversation about how to improve and maximize learning experiences in the senior year.  If CURRENT Stuyvesant High School students wish to make a comment, I ask them to do so without providing their actual names in order to preserve confidentiality and respect privacy rights.

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