Success for Every Student

I’ve always had a bit of an issue with the “success for every student” motto, and I imagine that this blog post will ruffle a few feathers.

First of all, success is a subjective term, and depending on a student’s proclivities and goals, the notion of success may manifest very differently for different individuals. Isn’t that reasonable, given the mantra that “every student is unique”? If so, why would we expect a catch-all definition of success (graduating high school, passing all courses) to apply to EVERY student? I think we have some very misguided goals.

My parents came to Canada relatively uneducated. My father spent many years working in the mountains, building the roads that take people to resort towns like Jasper and Banff. It was back-breaking work. He told us stories of how the men had to go out in unbearably cold temperatures when even the horses were kept from working, due to the fact that their lungs could freeze.

Being an extremely diligent man with loads of ambition, my father worked his way into a job as a boilermaker, where he was protected by burgeoning labour laws and an increasingly influential union. He proudly told us of how he became a supervisor for Imperial Oil. He was still a labourer, mind you, but as a supervisor, he could earn more money through both his regular salary and through overtime pay.

Many years later, my father met my mother, who came to Canada fifteen years after he did. Like him, she spoke not a word of English upon her arrival, and was not highly educated. My father barely completed grade 6 when the devastation of World War II made him an orphan and, later, a refugee. My mother, on the wrong side of the corrupt power of a communist country, failed grade 10 and struggled to make a living before she decided to follow her brothers to the land of milk and honey. She worked various part-time jobs while we were young as a night-janitor in an office and as a dishwasher in a restaurant, also on the night-shift. This allowed her to be home with us during the day.

While we were still rather young, my father’s health, after toiling many years in pretty brutal conditions, failed him. He could no longer work, so my mother had to find full-time employment. She felt like she hit the jackpot when she got a job working in an industrial laundry facility. The pay was really good, the hours were perfect, and she had never been afraid of hard work. However, in time, the back-breaking labour took a toll on her health as well.

My parents both worked rather menial jobs, but they were fiercely proud of their accomplishments. They came to a new country and taught themselves the language – they even learned to read on their own. Unfortunately, in those days, there were no immigration centres to help people like my parents. They were able to earn honest livings and buy their own home, a modest bungalow in a working class neighbourhood that may as well have been an estate. My dad mowed the lawn to make perfectly straight lines, my mom kept a vegetable garden that produced more than enough to feed us all summer, and that little house was always in “tip-top shape,” as my dad used to say. For all their troubles, both their children achieved advanced degrees in their fields and pursued lives worthy of their sacrifices.

My parents never gave the impression that they considered themselves inferior due to their “station” in life. Yes, they were rather common labourers, but as far as they were concerned, they were doing honest and necessary work and because of their jobs, they were able to support their family and put two children through university, as well as to provide financial help whenever it was needed. The nobility with which they approached work and life was inspirational, but I don’t know if it’s even possible today, and this is the problem.

When we tell students that EVERYONE can “succeed” in school, we are implying that if one does not do so, then he or she is of less value. And let’s face it: supporting a family on minimum wage today is near impossible – at least not in the manner my parents were able to support theirs. But that’s the rub, isn’t it? We DO still need people to pave roads, we DO still need people to pull the laundry out of industrial washing machines and sort it, we DO still need people to collect our garbage and so many other tasks that we take for granted as menial and unworthy jobs. Something is wrong with a system that looks down upon anyone who works an honest living just because they didn’t “succeed” in school.

Instead of lowering standards in education and offering increasingly vocational “courses” as early as middle school, we should focus on providing a solid educational foundation for all students and accept that some will achieve in this arena and some will not – and that should be okay. Keep expectations high and rigorous and work to encourage and inspire students for as long as possible. Barring severe cognitive difficulties, every student should learn to read. Every student should be proficient with arithmetic. Every student should have a foundation in civic responsibility and knowledge of their democratic rights. Every student should have the chance to stand on the shoulders of giants. But for those students who are perhaps not interested in an academic education, or for those students who struggle academically, instead of lowering the bar for them, and by extension, everyone else, why not provide them with a way out into the world where they don’t have to feel ashamed, but where they can earn a living wage and feel proud of contributing to society in some meaningful way, as my parents did?

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