Raining on Dreams — Sharing the Odds with Our Kids

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On the list of statements that make me want to tear out at least some of my hair: “You know some people make lots of money playing video games, Mrs. Turner.” That statement can be added to, “I am going to play for the NFL.” Or NBA, or NHL, or Houston Astros, or some foreign soccer team. (U.S. soccer teams still don’t pay well enough.) Alternatives include, “I am going to be a sportscaster in Chicago,” or “I am going to be a famous rapper,” I have heard these and similar statements too many times. Many middle school and even high school kids have little real concept of the future coming at them. Schools don’t always help, as teachers and counselors try to avoid raining on unrealistic dreams.

I understand that desire to support the hopes and dreams of our students. In elementary school, I’d just smile and let the early NFL dream go, maybe with a few comments about getting ready for college so the NFL will be able to see your talent. By late elementary school, I might talk about getting a good education in case you hurt your knee or something.

But by middle school and high school , educational professionals ought to stop smiling and giving unconditional or lightly-qualified support to unrealistic dreams. The number of players in the NFL as a percentage of the approximate number of college football players might be a place to start. In general, what are the numbers behind the dream? How many video players are there? How many make money playing video games? How many could support a house, car and family on that money?

Unrealistic dreams lead directly to unrealistic actions. That’s our problem. School may matter only minimally to that boy who plans to be in the NBA. He intends to keep his eligibility, but especially in academically-underperforming schools, high school eligibility in the form of “C” grades and above may not indicate any level of learning close to college-readiness. Video-game-boy (or girl, but I have heard this comment from multiple boys and not a single girl) may not see any use in formal education at all.

Eduhonesty: It’s legitimate to rain on dreams. Sometimes, we teachers and educational professionals must adult. It’s adult to rain on dreams, when those dreams appear to be true longshots — and don’t offer a reasonable fallback option if the dream fails.

I’d never slow down a would-be astronaut or brain surgeon. Instead, I’d point to Mae Jemison who turned her B.S. in chemical engineering and later medical studies into a platform for journeying into space. If Mae had stopped at chemical engineering, she would have had a sturdy rung to use to climb the ladder into middle-class comfort, but she went on to become a physician and from there entered the early history of space travel. She had picked a direction with the potential to branch off into many lives of comfort and fulfillment.

I am not saying we should never support that boy who wants to enter professional sports. An exceptional high school basketball player should be encouraged to go for his dreams. But we owe students the knowledge to make informed choices. We owe them a truthful assessment of the work involved. In the book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell shared his belief that around 10,000 hours of practice were required to become expert at any activity as demanding as professional sports. That number might flex somewhat, but tossing a ball around a few afternoons a week or even attending high school practice will not get our would-be players out onto professional fields. Kids need to hear this truth from us. They ought to read Gladwell, too.

We owe students a best effort at explaining the world outside of high school — not the world we want for them, but the world they will enter. We can start with 1,696 NFL players divided by 1,085,272 high school football players =  0.0016 chance of going from high school football to the NFL.* I’d make sure students understood how tiny a piece of the pie 0.0016 represents, too.

Feel-good helps our young elementary dreamers and I am all for encouraging dreams — just not pipe-dreams in adolescents. While “You can be whatever you want to be” sounds great and is a feel-good strategy in the short-run, that short-run ends too soon. Our students graduate and move on. They have no choice. When the only plan they have is “NFL star,” only in the very rarest cases, do they have any plan at all. For 99.99% of our football players, the “NFL star” plan is only slightly more realistic than “first veterinarian on Mars.” We adults know that. Our kids need to know that too. I’d be willing to end my talk with that aspiring NFL player by explaining Malcolm’s 10,000 hours, expressing the belief that a player might achieve his dream through fierce dedication and effort.

But the actual odds should be out there for kids to understand, front and center.

*Sources: www.infoplease.com/askeds/total-players-nfl.html and CBSNews.com, Football Remains No. 1 H.S. Sport in USA By Terence P. Jeffrey | August 26, 2016 | 5:07 PM EDT