Why I stopped asking students, "How are you?"

Aside from teaching my Chicago Public Schools students how to write, I remain committed to helping students develop social skills. I want them to converse (not “conversate”) about their experiences and the world around them.

One of our classroom expectations is “Be Honest.” I ask students to be truthful about their situations if they didn’t do an assignment or if they need an extension or if they feel lost. I don’t want them to use excuses or feel like they have to cover up the fact that they did or did not do something.

I emphasize this because I’ve seen the social-emotional changes among students over the last twenty-two years I’ve been a teacher. In 1995, students also had self-esteem issues, depression, anxiety, fear. But we didn’t talk about it much in school communities. Probably because students could keep their feelings private. In some ways, I suppose, this prevented their social-emotional issues from becoming exacerbated. No one knew what they felt unless they said it.

But social media changed all of that. Diaries and journals disappeared. The private became public on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram. Now pre-teens and teens post what they feel and what they fear; they wait for the world to respond. Or ignore them.

An Atlantic article titled, “Have Smartphones Ruined a Generation?” highlights how “rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011.”

In fact, “boys’ depressive symptoms increased by 21 percent from 2012 to 2015, while girls’ increased by 50 percent—more than twice as much.”

The researcher argues these increase in pre-teen and teen unhappiness is due to Smartphones. My teenage students agree. They agree that being superficially connected to so many other people makes them question everything they do, wear, think, believe.

I can’t control how much my students spend on their phones.

But I don’t want to add to their inner discomfort, if they experience it, by forcing them to say “I’m fine” if they're not when I ask them in passing, “How are you?”

So I’ve changed how I address students in brief interactions. I try hard to say instead, “Hi [address them by their name], good to see you.” And I keep walking.

If I see them in the hallway at their locker in the morning putting away their jacket because they got to school late, I just say, “Good morning.” I don’t rub it in that they’re late.

If I see a student who hasn’t turned in an essay in the hallway, I stopped mentioning the missing work. I just say, “Hi, [address them by their name].”

But not all high-school students walk around moping or sad. And many times with teens, we have no darn idea what’s going on inside their minds.

The teens I do see smiling, interacting with others, engaging in conversations with adults are those who have found an identity outside of their phones.

I see them as part of student organizations or participating in clubs. I find out that they volunteer somewhere—or work. I try to find opportunities to compliment them for their involvement and dedication to school and their after-school jobs.

And I see the pride in their faces when they tell me how many hours they worked Saturday or how their last game turned out.

Then the most socially skilled young people will pose a question to me like, “How’s your book?” Or they’ll ask me if I'd ever wear sneakers with a suit.

"Uh. Hell no."  I tell them flat out.

And then they explain why I should.  Apparently there's "dress sneakers" now.

I still say, "Nope."

Then I criticize how much they spend on shoes.  They think I spend too much on hats.  (Whatever.)

But these are the conversations that can help young people feel valued and fight against the isolating identity of social media.

The worst thing we can do as adults is ask a teenager a question we don't want answered honestly.

So I've found that compliments and sincere questions help us learn a little more about the young people we work with, and they learn to go beyond the superficial social interactions that make them feel they have to hide their true feelings by saying everything is “fine.”

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