When Students Are Ready To Listen

Tonight, I had an interesting conversation with a college drop-out. She is young so she still has a chance at a decent future for herself. This young lady will have a decent future for herself when she is ready to listen. When she is ready to stop talking and start listening she may be able to turn her academic life around and in doing so getting her life straight.

If I’ve heard her story once, I’ve heard it 200 times. She is on her second academic probation. She explained she tried to appeal each probation but the committee wasn’t “compassionate enough.” She claimed to be homeless, moving from house to house, apartment to apartment, from boyfriend to boyfriend. She was homeless due to her “crazy mom, kicking me out of the house for not signing her contract.”

“You didn’t see that coming? You just came home one day and your mom stuck this contract in your face, and told you to sign or move out? And you never saw that coming?”

“Nope. She just gave it to me and I refused to sign.”

The reality is, there were warning signs all over the place, I’m sure. Just based on our brief conversation I detected numerous issues and behaviors standing in the way of this young woman’s success. Lots of denial, lots of blaming other people, not much taking responsibility for her previous actions or behavior, and not many signs she would be changing those behaviors any time soon. I pointed the discussion in another direction.

“Before you were put on probation what degree were you pursuing?”


“Why psychology?”

“Because I really like psychology.”

“Hmm. What do you plan on doing with the degree?”

“I don’t know.”

“OK, here is what you need to do. Imagine you have graduated and have your psychology degree. Now, what are you going to do? What job are you going to apply for?

A pause. “Uhm, I don’t know. I think I see what you’re saying.”

“Look,” I said, “you’ve got to get your life straight. I’ve listened to you talk about being out of school for two years. You’ve bounced around from relationship to relationship. You don’t sound like you have plan. You’ve been out of school for two years and have no car. And, you selected an academic field notoriously hard to find a good job with only a bachelor’s degree. You’ve got so many distractions going on and no focus. You want to be successful and have a decent life, right?” I pause to sip the brown ale I ordered with dinner and let me words sink in a little. “You selected a major that’s going to result in student loan debt of $40,000. In order to get a good job with a psychology degree, you’ll need at least a Master’s Degree. There goes another $30,000. Now, you’ve got a psychology Master’s degree and $70,000 of college debt. Now, what are you going to do?”

I ate some food while she talked about not thinking things through very well. She really likes psychology yet has no idea what she would do with the degree. I continued. “I’m not trying to diminish the value of psychology; I like psychology, too. But, sit down and find yourself a job like you graduated yesterday and see what you come up with. Going into something you like is fine, but you have to face the reality there are not that many good paying jobs for people with only a bachelor’s in psychology. Major in marketing, or business, or economics, and minor in psychology.”

These stories are prevalent throughout every college and university in the United States. Maybe not the part about having a contract shoved in your face by your mother. But, seriously; how do you not see that coming, unless A. You’re completely delusional, B. You’re not being honest with a complete stranger, or C. Your mom really is nutters.

Recurrent traits I notice in college student body population – among those populations I interact with – are ones of aimlessness, of finding an academic path, and laying out an initial career trajectory. I don’t have any empirical evidence; I have not conducted any true research surveys, collected in real data. I maintain a collection of anecdotal stories based on conversations I have with students before, during, and after class. In my world geography courses I like to differentiate countries based not only on levels of educational attainment but how different countries approach education their populations, in general. In the United States, for example, we have no implementation of any type of skill, knowledge, or aptitude testing for the assignment of young people towards career fields. In contrast, countries like Germany and China, scrutinize closely aptitudes within their school aged population specifically directing them towards specific careers paths and educational programs.

In the United States high school students may receive some career counseling. The programs are optional or opt-in and may not be part of a greater district plan. Some school districts and some states are working on implementing more formal career counseling programs based on the history of success of some programs. (“Empirical Research Studies Supporting the Value of School Counseling;” American School Counselor Association) In my opinion this is a great strategy for a variety of reasons.

Students and young adults really need formal assessment of aptitudes, knowledge, and abilities in order to better formulate options of potential career choices. If we know our strength and weakness we can then find greater success in our strengths while working on shoring our weaknesses. Fundamentally, though, we need data on ourselves in order to best solve concerns related to ourselves. Having recently had blood work performed for a doctor’s visit, health professionals collect all sorts of health data to discern changes and to stave off or address impending health concerns. Yet, our United States educational system, rife with testing of academic standards, in general, doesn’t seem too much interested in helping individuals build upon strengths while fortifying weakness.

What I said could be construed as teachers not caring about students. That is patently false. I know many educators, and almost to a person they care about their students to nearly the same degree as their own children. The educational environment seems to be geared towards moving students through tests in order to please state or federal educational oversight committees. Thus to be considered a good teacher one must find ways of motivating students and customizing lessons for students in order for the student to perform better on a state or federal standardized test. Sounds like I’m talking about teaching to the test and I sort of am. But, what I am really saying is students are not being groomed to be successful college students or even success people. The false logic applied essentially states, “As a result of continuous standardized testing student will exit their K-12 educational experience as educated and successful people – because the standardized scores say so.” Guidance counselors, when present, tend to mitigate against the false logic as they assist a number of students in implementing positive personal goals.

Good guidance counseling helps better prepare students for college. Again, studies are showing students receiving guidance counseling tend to have better college graduation rates over peers from similar academic cohorts, i.e. control student groups versus experimental student groups.

One outcome of guidance counseling in high school results not only in higher graduation rates, but potentially carries over to spending less time in college by eliminating the unproductive pursuit of degree programs in hit-and-miss attempts to discover their ideal career, thereby reducing cost of college over the long-term because of the time spent engaged in career discovery activities. An additional benefit of guidance counseling is the application and awarding of suitable financial aid, again reducing the expense of a college degree.

For some reason, probably many and nefarious, improved guidance counseling is not part of the national conversation in education reform. I reason this due to the huge amount of attention given to K-12 testing and the national level discussion currently being waged by various sides and stakeholders over Common Core, and implementation of vouchers systems, coupled with the lack of attention given to career guidance programs, in general, support for creating or developing career guidance programs, and frequent coverage of budget cuts reducing or eliminating contracts of educators involved in career guidance counseling. To partly prove my point, the Department of Labor estimates about a 12% growth rate for school guidance counselors, the national average growth rate for all occupations. (Occupational Outlook Handbook; BLS; DoL) Also noted is since school guidance counselors salaries (and funding) is tied to federal and state budgets growth may be limited in geographic regions.

Studies prove working one-on-one with students improves academic achievement across the board, for all ethnic groups. Studies indicate working one-on-one with students living in moderate to extreme poverty show marked improvement in behavior and academic achievement. Even gender differences in academic achievement can be improved by guidance counseling.

Current research seems to indicate assisting students with career and guidance counseling improves academic performance, student attitudes and behaviors. One would think if schools were really interested in improving student outcomes, and by outcomes I mean student achievement, personal success, college admission, and overall positive approach to life, school districts, school systems, state school boards, and federal programs would be advocating the training and hiring additional school guidance counselors. Evidence one might see of the value of guidance counselors would be employment rates of guidance counselors higher than the national average, for example. Further evidence might be our national leaders suggesting ways to reduce teacher-to-student ratios, and developing and improving guidance counselor programs across the United States. I’m simply not seeing evidence to suggest politicians are truly interested in improving the educational environment in the United States.

Instead, what we really hear from our politicians foretells doom for public education. Scott Walker breaking the teachers union in Wisconsin is not a good sign. Republicans and some Democrats advocating for school vouchers is a second red flag. School voucher systems will simply create a Have and Have-not system among public schools, while potentially sending taxpayer money into the hands of private schools and into the hands of religious schools, which I find to be abhorrent and verging on State support of churches and religion. Will you allow my voucher to be used at St. Pius IX and then deny my neighbor use of a voucher to attend a Muslim school, a synagogue, or perhaps I will pay myself the voucher when I choose to home-school? We are also now witnessing the rise of corporate schools, as education companies like Pearson, play a greater role in providing all sort education services, which funnels millions of dollars away from schools, teachers, counselors and into the hands of disinterested, publicly traded companies (Pearson PLC, NYSE: PSO $17.55 10-1-2015) answerable to stockholders and clearly Wall Street traders pursuing wealth and little interest in the life of some middle school or high school child in Kentucky, or Indiana, or Oklahoma, or wherever.

I get worried – no really, really concerned when states appoint people to education boards who have never experienced a classroom environment in any capacity other than as a student. Kentucky, for example, appointed Kevin C. Brown as interim commissioner of education on September 1st, 2015. I need guard my words as Mr. Brown is a lawyer, holding a Juris Doctor from University of Kentucky. His previous experience is working for a law firm in Lexington, Kentucky. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a minor in political science. I can’t find any hint Mr. Brown has ever taught in a K-12 classroom, holds any teaching certificate from any state, or has any teaching experience, period. Again, people in control or exerting influence over education in states are not those who have real-world experience or front-line knowledge of the daily trial and tribulations of teachers and students in our public schools.

No, the people in control or exerting influence are those litigious-minded, CYA-centered personalities who simply cannot identify with teachers. Has he had to clean human shit from a floor after a student defecated in a classroom during class time? Has he ever had to break-up a fight between girls or boys? Has he ever had to counsel a young woman who began her period in 4th block? Has he ever had to sit down with parents who are convinced their child is fine in spite of IQ scores in the mid-60s and not being able to communicate which hand is left and which had is right? Has he ever had to teach an entire class of Black students? Or a racially mixed class?

Should being a “Commissioner of Education” require a candidate have some former teaching experience? I’m not qualified to answer that question. I think the question needs consideration.

Guidance counselors play an important role, could play a better, more visible role in schools than they play today. Simple changes may reap real, full, and significant rewards on a singular human level. When you look in a child’s eyes and say, “You are important. You matter. And I am going to help you tap into your potential,” and this is done regularly, positive results will occur. Potentially life-long, difference-making changes.

Simply being available is the first step. Whether in college or high school, being open, available, and welcoming is important. Being pushy, heavy-handed, and confrontational isn’t the best approach, probably.

My best guess is helping when students are ready to listen, to soak up advice, perspectives, and ideas. The conversation described above was with a person not ready to listen in spite of being in her mid-20s. If she were to attain a higher level of emotional maturity, she could benefit from guidance counseling, if she were willing to listen. But, someone skilled, knowledgeable, and patient must be available to listen. Simply stuff.

If you made it this far, you’re awesome !! PAX.




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