Aspiring to hold the pole

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“Ms. Q, is it true that you get a lot of money to hold the pole when they are fixing the roads?”

We talked careers today. Part of the challenge for my district could be heard in the subtexts of that conversation. Union roofer was one favored option, along with other careers in construction. Garbageman was another known source of good pay. Prostitute came in a distant third. I weighed in on the risks and short life for that career. Stylist had fans, as did professional athlete.

For years, teachers have been pushing professional careers at these students. Those efforts don’t seem to have amounted to much. I discussed the high salaries in healthcare. As soon as law came up, my class shot it down. Seven years of college was absurd. Anything that required more than two years of college ran into trouble, although elementary school teacher remained on some lists. Two-year options received at least a short nod. Dental hygienist did not get shot down coming out of the gate anyway.

Eduhonesty: These kids have had a rough year, a year of test after test that they could barely understand. They don’t like school itself much now. I suspect they like it less than they did last year. If we want to sell higher education, we need to start looking more closely at the psychological effects of testing. I’ve never, ever had a group that aspired to so little. In the past, I usually received a few answers like doctor, lawyer or architect. Today, they asked about the amount of college required to be an elementary school teacher and at least one student, after hearing that a full four years of college might be required, decided she would prefer to be a hair stylist.

In no way am I suggesting that garbageman or union roofer are not honorable careers. The world needs stylists. But that career conversation was nonetheless disheartening. My students simply did not want to be in school. Breathing in a cloud of dust while standing all day holding a heavy pole, as jackhammers rattled their teeth and eardrums, sounded more appealing than staying in school for an extra two years.

A pretty girl up front emerged from her usual impassive indifference to grin at me and agree that the world was a weird place, too weird for selling your body on 10th street. That topic of conversation caught her interest in a way that magma, lava and rocks had not. Suddenly, this quiet little girl met me with an engaged, worldly viewpoint that is still giving me pause some seven hours later. That college talk that we are all selling? No one in the class I talked to this afternoon appeared to be buying.

We need to figure out to what extent testing may be part of these shifting and declining dreams and expectations. If I’m right, opportunity costs from lost instructional time may be only a small part of the crisis our too-often-blind search for data may be creating. It’s hard to sell studying, homework and academic-improvement to a kid whose favorite plan is turning a sign from stop to slow and back to stop again — although I guess I should be grateful that’s all my girl wanted to do with a pole. My students trust me. It’s probably a good sign that exotic dancer only hit the list as a brief note that sounded like a joke.