Last week my school had its Career Day, and one of the guidance counselors invited me to speak to several classes about my job in the after-school program. I had some really good discussions with kids about different kinds of jobs and the importance of knowing another language (I spoke to ESL classes and the kids really seemed to like the idea that they could get ahead by speaking and writing their language), but things got really interesting when I brought up college.
In the first class, the teacher interrupted me while I telling the kids about what they needed to do in high school to get into college to remind his class that "college isn't for everyone." I realize that the teacher was being realistic - a lot of the 7th and 8th graders who were in that classroom aren't going to make it to college (or even finish high school). I also understand that some people just don't do well in school and can excel in other areas (the teacher brought up a lot of trades that the kids might be interested in). But I was really surprised at how the teacher had already begun to lower the kids' expectations. One of the students actually tried to contradict him and said that her mother had told her about the importance of a college degree, and he just ignored her and kept telling the kids that it would be okay to settle for any job that would pay the bills. I don't disagree with the teacher for being realistic about his kids' futures, especially since he probably has seen a number of his former students fail in high school (a lot of kids from this school do), but it seems wrong to start closing off options to middle schoolers when almost all of them could turn it around in high school. I recognized a number of the "bad" or under-achieving kids in the class, and I couldn't help but wonder if rich kids or students in a high-achieving would have been told the same thing.
The extent to which a lot of people in my school (the staff in my after-school program, teachers, etc) have given up on most kids is more obvious as June is approaching, and it is particularly discouraging to me after watching a few kids in my program that everyone had written off do really well this year (one of my favorite kids came by last week to brag to everyone that he isn't going to summer school this year). All this particular kid needed was someone to believe in him, and even though that isn't going to help every student in this school (it didn't help everyone in the after-school program), it could go a long way for some.
I got a little cheered up by the next class, but it felt like it was in a completely different school. The kids asked interesting questions, and the teacher got really excited when all of her kids said they wanted to go to college. Expectations alone won't help the kids in this school overcome all the obstacles they face, and kids should know that they need to work hard to make it, but career day reminded me how important it is to let kids know that we believe they can do it.