photo by Morgan Weir
As high schoolers gear up for college prep season and start thinking about their post-high school plans, one Millard West teacher has found a unique way to inspire them. When walking down the halls upstairs, students and staff may notice a display by room 203. If they look closer, they’ll see the faces of school alumni.
Social studies teacher Tim Royers created the display of his former students. So far, he has put together 21 posters that include information about the students’ post-high school ventures in addition to the advice they would give their high school selves.
Royers talked to former students who he has kept in touch with over the years or months since they graduated. He chose people who have gone on to do everything from serving in the military to going to law school. While Royers knew for the most part about what career paths they had taken or what majors they went into, he did learn about some surprising projects that students had taken up when he reconnected with them.
“Some of the folks who are still in college told me about things like their internships which surprised me,” Royers said. “One of them was on a project to help with sustainable student housing. It was that kind of stuff that was really cool to me.”
The idea for the alumni wall came about after conversations Royers has had with current students as they stress over plans for college and post-high school. While these are conversations that most high school teachers are familiar with, Royers noticed an excessive amount of them happening this semester. An alumni wall was an innovative solution that he hoped would quell students’ anxieties and inspire them as they continue to think about their future.
“You always have those generic conversations of ‘you can do anything’ or ‘plenty of people have done xyz’,” Royers said. “I decided that if I could try and get a body of recent graduates that were in the class not too long ago that it would be more tangible and real and maybe more relevant for kids that are struggling to figure out what they want to do when they get out of here.”
The intention behind the project was an uncomplicated one: to empower students. By creating a display that everyone can see as they walk to class, he was able to spark conversations among a lot of different people in the building. Royers was hoping to show students what they are capable of and what options are out there for them.
Those goals were not just reached, but exceeded. Students have already started sharing how the posters have impacted them. For some, it has given them new ideas for their future plans. For others, the advice has been more recently relevant.
“I was planning on dropping an AP class next semester and he [Royers] gave me the advice to read over some of the advice on the wall and rethink my decision,” senior Nicole Paulsen said.
“I looked through the quotes of some of his former students on the wall and they all resonated with the same message to take advantage of the opportunities I’m given here at West and to challenge myself, so I decided against what I thought would be the easy way out and pursued a class that will challenge me to be a better version of myself.”
It has also taught Royers a surprising lesson. Aside from learning new things about former students, he has also discovered the impact that generating this discussion can have.
“What this has taught me is that its important to share what you know,” Royers said. “I knew what most of these people were already doing but this is the first year of my 13 years teaching that I actually made the effort to share what I knew with current students.”
Royers plans to connect with as many former students as possible and continue the project as far as he can. He has a goal of filling up the entire wall with posters. Beyond expansion, one of his main goals is representation. He made a point to include a diverse body of alumni who have all gone down different paths. Some pursued two-year degrees, others received bachelors from in-state schools and a few went out of state to schools like Colombia and Northwest Missouri.
“My goal was to try and represent as many different paths as possible and make sure that if you’re a student walking in the hallway, you can see yourself in some of those examples,” Royers said. “I wanted to make sure there was a fair representation of male and female students, students of color and just different career paths. If you can’t see yourself in them then it has lost its purpose.”
The advice to their high school selves gave former students the chance to encourage teens who are in the position they once were in and warn them not to make the same mistakes. Many of them advised living in the moment while others called on high schoolers to seize whatever opportunities they get.
“Take deep breaths and enjoy the present moment,” Halli Weitl, who graduated in 2015, said. “Give it your all and everything will work out in the end.”
Royers has worked hard to collect an array of advice from recent grads, and he also has some advice of his own.
“My advice would be to always be open because you never what kind of possibilities are going to appear in front of you,” Royers said. “If you would have asked high school me if I wanted to teach, I would’ve laughed. Just keep those doors open and always be willing to consider new possibilities.”
This project has been a key to unlocking conversations and creating a culture where both the fears and hopes of students are acknowledged. It has proven that empowering a few people can make a big difference in a community. Most importantly, it has shown that success looks different for everyone and that all students, regardless of their backgrounds, are capable of achieving their own version of success. Sometimes they just need to be reminded of their own power.
This story was originally published on The Catalyst on December 20, 2019.