College and Career Whatever Have You

Jose VilsonJose7 Comments

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A couple of years ago, I had a heavy-set, lighter-skinned student who spaced out for about half my class every day. He twiddled his pencil, shaved it down til the disposable paint cluttered the desk along with his extra-large binder. He did most of his multiplication on his head, which was unfortunate because I asked for it on looseleaf to turn in by the end of the period. He applied for one high school, four back-ups. He turned to me one day after school during one of my “You better be here so you can get your grades up” sessions and said, “Mr. Vilson, I want to fix cars.” His father used to roll to parent-teacher conferences with a phone as big as his face and a 4-wheeler as big as an NYC studio. I’d give him and his father warm and cold feedback. I’s still think he was smarter than the sub par quizzes and performance tasks that he handed in.

He got a letter sometime in spring that told him where he was going to high school. He looked up at me and said, “Oh my god, YES, I’m so happy!”

It was an odd thing to hear coming from his mouth because I still have a bit of conservatism in me. The idea of assuring that my students have the opportunity to go to a good high school and then to a good college lights a fire in my belly. I already had former students attend MIT, John Jay, and Syracuse University (wink, wink), but a silent and large part of me wanted students to be happy with themselves and who they would become. I saw how schooling, no matter how good we as educators thought ourselves to be, really isn’t for every single body. But, for the time being, it seemed to work for 90% of the students I worked with, so why play with the odds?

Oh, because this student was happy as hell with his choice for a career and technical school. My ideals were no match for his real happiness.

As students start to find out where they’re going to high school, it’s important for middle school educators to not look down on the choices they’ve made for themselves. Success looks so different for all types of kids. We don’t all need to be at an Ivy League school, though, if we meet the criteria, they should be given a look based on our credentials. The conversation about high school, and schooling as a whole, doesn’t often intersect with the conversation with the pursuit of happiness. I respect the differences, and I don’t see myself changing my overarching mission of putting a wedge in as many doors as possible for my students.

I also know I have to respect their smiles, their wishes, and their agency, even when some people still look down on the choice my student made for himself.

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 7

  1. It really is a sad state of affairs when people look down on those who really want to fix cars, become plumbers, welders, or at $100,000 a year in NY garbage workers. In the practical jobs world it doesn’t take four more years of way worse teaching than in school, and you get a job which pays you for the hours you work, unlike many so-called “professional” jobs (sorry, these are the careers). Where do people (you know the sort of people I mean) think that new businesses come from. “But all clever kids should get a degree”. “So you want your car fixed by a dumb-ass” is the real response !

  2. I love all your posts, José, but this one really hits home today. It isn’t about “settling,” but instead about honoring the professions that don’t require a university degree. My son-in-law is an amazing mechanic, and it’s all he’s ever wanted to do. I don’t understand why “we” think certain professions are better than others, or are somehow more successful. I understand we want our students to reach for the skies when it comes to what they will do when they leave us… but I want them to define that for themselves. They don’t need us to tell them what they SHOULD be. Expose them to what they COULD be, and then let them fly. Thank you so much for writing this.

  3. I’m glad you’re there putting in those wedges! And, that you know and respect that everyone’s path is different. This post is timely. In a struggle with my daughter’s school “over her future” which, while never easy, is particularly difficult for a person with a disability. Amazing that everyone is stunned to hear a mom say she wants her daughter to be happy and do what she’s good at, rather than try to comply with a “program.” Thanks for this.

  4. Thank your for your insights into the larger picture of what makes life worth living. When kids have a passion and we ignore it with our endless aim at educational conformity, we miss the very point of living. Pushing kids to be “better off” by making more money, buying more stuff, driving more hours in traffic hardly pays off when juxtaposed against the pure thrill of looking at a motor — and then diving in to fix it. :)

  5. Stable, well-paid blue-collar jobs in the U.S. such as manufacturing evaporated a while back (see Detroit) for most people, so we thought that getting a college degree was a much safer bet for everybody. To an extent, that still holds true, but the trouble is, due to globalization, the Internet, and outsourcing, lots of services and middle-class jobs are migrating outward, too: like radiology, tax law, and accounting. No one can tell what will be next, which leads to a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of doubling down on education for fields that we think will be safe and lucrative.

    As you pointed out, higher education really isn’t for everybody, though. There’s got to be a balance between removing barriers to higher education and encouraging children to attend the best schools they can, on the one hand, and blindly pushing everyone down the same path, on the other.

  6. Teachers have expectations of children based on our beliefs and values. Wanting the best for children is what motivates teachers to educate. We want to share our love of educating in hopes of children finding what they love. When I see students in my class, I see the gifts that they bring, and I want them to be proud of what they can do. I also want them to see how they can challenge themselves by adding to what they have through learning new ideas and skills.

    Teachers have to remember to let children know that you can follow your passion. Our responsibility is developing and exposing children to find various ways to express their passion. Continue building upon the foundation or laying the groundwork for taking risks and knowing it’s okay to try. As a middle school teacher and parent, I understand that going to college isn’t for everyone. What is for everyone is OPPORTUNITY. Go for what you believe. Do what is going to nurture your spirit. Be happy and continue persevering. If it’s going to college, then go. If it’s that vocational program, then go. If it’s that break to travel or join a corps, the go. Go. Go. Go.

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