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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3 thoughts on “Success for Every Student

  1. Excellent post. I went to the “Inspiring Education” symposium and was struck by the notion of unrealistic aspersions that was evident. We were sitting in a well built, heated building being served lunch right to our table. All the time being told that the future didn’t need people who could do anything that allowed us to be there… cooking food, delivering it, building things or keeping the lights on. It was like large buildings just grew, lights just work and food just appeared. I think that all Educational conferences should have to be held in empty fields… When the sun goes down and the plates of food don’t magically appear, they might think differently about how much more important it is to collaborate than to read or basic chemistry “I don’t know how to start a fire… I have no bars!”(especially when the coyotes begin to howl). As to the notion of success, I will consider my child a success if he has a life that has love, comfort and intellectual stimulation. Please don’t take this the wrong way, because I think we agree, but there is no way a teacher can determine what my child needs to to become a success in the short time they know him… I have known him since birth and I don’t know. I will make you a deal, you use your subject expertise to teach him as much about some of the amazing things humans have written, and I will try to teach him how to be happy… Maybe, just maybe, he will be serving food (or setting up WiFi) for a bunch of educationalists in the future and be able to smile at the thought of the Pigs wearing the farmer’s clothes before he goes home to his family and laughs about it. Is Animal Farm still being taught?

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Nick. I completely agree that parents know their kids best. Unfortunately, the current system puts such a focus on teachers-as-psychologists, teachers-as-counsellors, teachers-as-friends, or any other new things that can be added to the list. My greatest concern is the trend away from standardized testing. With teachers solely responsible for uniquely designed, personalized assessment, students’ futures are unduly in their hands. I wouldn’t want to be the only one responsible for “deciding” that Little Johnny is meeting some vague competencies that would “allow” him to pass the course. If you look at my other posts, I’ve detailed my thoughts there.

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  2. I love your story here. I grew up in an impoverished home with two caring and supportive parents and five siblings. The house never had running water or indoor plumbing — after the kids were gone they sold the place, moved into a trailer in town to retire, with all the conveniences.

    Two of us got PhDs. The others have all done very well for themselves and raised families, lived comfortable lives and accomplished important things in the world. My father was fairly well educated, but never completed undergraduate studies and my mother never finished school, yet academics was highly valued in our home. She taught piano and played voluntarily for events all over town, having attained high levels of certification in the discipline. He was an itinerant newspaper person and travelling salesman who had a string of hard luck. Both of them extremely hard working, and taught us the values of working hard and studying hard. They both read voraciously and were “independently educated”. The intellectual life around our kitchen table was very stimulating, full of games and riddles and discussion of arcane facts and trivia and news from around the world.

    We rarely thought about being poor (I speak for myself). Our parents never focussed on it, and did not stand for self-pity. They valued the inner life more than the material, and passed on to us a reluctance to become dependent on others, or on the largesse of the state. Though we surely qualified for years, they never applied for welfare, choosing to be creative about employment and scraping income from various sources. They gave sacrificially and modelled for us a pride in who they were. Despite their mean estate, they were well-known in our town of 10,000 as prominent citizens and everyone knew their children too. We never wasted time feeling sorry for ourselves. My brother and I worked our way through university — our parents were simply unable to pay for us, and the though to ask them didn’t even cross my mind. But both of us came out with PhDs and no dept, surviving by working hard each summer, earning scholarships, and avoiding expensive campus socials.

    Every story is its own. I think our society drags people down by publicly wringing hands over them being “victims” of invisible forces. Yeah, and sometimes just hard luck. But it is no favour to teach them, especially when young, to wallow in this as their identity and to expect others to continually intervene. If every child is to succeed every child must know (a) whatever station in life they begin with, they can go anywhere they want with that if they work hard and take care of making daily progress; (b) don’t blame others for what you lack, even if there seems to be truth in that — it does nothing to further your lot in life; and (c) in the end it is up to nobody but them; take responsibility for your own life and future.

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