In my job as a teacher I am consistently amazed at the capabilities of teenagers. Most recently, I have been amazed by a local mountain biker whose online videos of himself astounded me, both for the difficulty of the tricks that he successfully landed and for the quality of the video footage that was taken and edited by another rider. I have been equally impressed, over the years, by teenage figure skaters, piano players, painters, actors, inventors, mechanics, and entrepreneurs. By the age of sixteen, a dedicated individual can amass an impressive amount of skill in one area. For an individual to attain this level of accomplishment, one important event must occur.
Somebody must recognize a youth’s interest and ability and connect them with the opportunities to pursue it. When a youth’s interests are connected with opportunity to learn at an appropriate age, they will tend to do the rest.
I need to give my parents a lot of credit for recognizing my healthy interests in my childhood and connecting me with people who could show my how to succeed. I remember my badminton coach showing me the most efficient way of moving on the court and telling me how important it was to have consistent and efficient footwork. I went home and measured out a badminton court in my parents garage and practised daily until the footwork pattern became second nature. Similarly my track coach mentioned how important it was to start the season with a strong base that came from regular distance running. I responded by choosing to run to school rather than drive my own vehicle, for an entire winter in Northern BC where it was regularly minus 20 outside. I wore a ski mask, snow pants, a winter jacket, and running shoes as I crunched 40 minutes through the snow on a daily basis for several months. I was ready for track season and was rewarded with some good results.
When I was given advice that aligned with my interests, I was motivated to do the work myself. The craving for success in my realm of interest eventually transcended to all areas of my life. Today’s teenagers are no different. They want to learn. They want to excel. They want to put in the time it takes to develop a high level of skill. And when they do, they grasp the inherent joy of doing something well which tends to carry over to the next stage of their life.
Two years ago at parent teacher interviews a concerned couple came in to discuss their son. He was not interested in school and only cared about biking. The parents were willing to support him in his pursuits but were obviously more concerned about his school work. He didn’t see the point of school and was not applying himself and they contemplated taking his bike away until his marks went up; a common approach to parenting. If your child isn’t doing what they should, take away what matters to them until they do. I discouraged this idea, as I have done many times in conversations with parents. I believe that if your child is interested in a healthy activity, encourage it at all times because when you use a healthy activity as leverage to correct an unhealthy behaviour you run the risk that it might not work. If the parents in this case had threatened to take biking away until his marks improved, he might have decided that biking wasn’t worth the work and therefore quit biking. He never would have reached his current level of ability. I have seen several parents take this approach only to see it backfire in the long run as the student quits all healthy activity one after another as they are used as leverage. Rather than go with their initial idea, I encouraged the parents to promote biking as much as possible and allow school to slide, for a while.
Somebody who experiences success in one area of life, understands how good it feels and therefore strives for success in other areas of life. Somebody who has never experienced success doesn’t know how good it feels and therefore can not be motivated by it.
It has now been three years since the parent teacher conference and the family is extremely proud of their son who has entered competitions and had genuine success. He has been contacted by companies who are looking to sponsor him and he can see a future in the industry. His relationship with his parents is far better as they have been spending a lot of time together at bike events. And as far as school goes, he is way more motivated than he has ever been. This doesn’t mean that he loves doing his homework but he does genuinely want to do well which is a substantial different than a few short years ago. Most students who don’t work hard in grade 8 and 9 don’t work any harder in grade 11 and 12. That isn’t the case for this young mountain biker who has transferred the success from biking into school; a scenario I have scene multiple times. Success breeds success.
Sadly, school provides too few opportunity for genuine success. In any academic class, we are asked to take a group of 25-30 students through the entire course. A few might get A’s, a few might fail, and the rest get something in between. The few who get A’s, might get a sense of accomplishment and success depending on how hard they actually had to work to get the mark they did. All too often the students who get A’s didn’t really have to work hard to get the mark and therefore miss out on the satisfaction of working hard for success. They also miss out on how much they could’ve learned if the marking system wasn’t undermining their desire to learn. Of the students who didn’t get A’s there might be one or two students in a class who had to work hard in order to simply pass. They will experience some level of success as well. The bulk of the high school class, however, just worked hard enough to get the mark they were after. There is no sense of accomplishment that comes with doing just enough. Passing a course doesn’t usually teach students the joy of working hard at something worth doing.
I think that students are more likely to experience genuine success outside of academic classes, like art, PE, music or mechanics. In all of these realms, there are a number of students who genuinely excel. But the best that a teacher can do in these realms is to point the students towards somebody who can take and mold them into their potential. For example, if a girl is amazing at softball and has the potential to earn a university scholarship, the PE teacher should encourage her to join a community softball league because playing softball in PE will never get her on the university team. Likewise, a musically talented student needs private lessons, a car enthusiast needs an apprenticeship, and an art enthusiast needs to be surrounded by other artists, in order to realize their potential.
In my job as a teacher I am consistently amazed at the capabilities of teenagers. But all the teenagers whose capabilities have amazed me have learned those abilities outside of school. They have joined community clubs, school teams, drama productions; found tutors, coaches, and simply practised what they have seen on the internet. The students who have had their interests matched with opportunities usually experience some level of success and that level of success transfers to other aspects of life; even the aspects where they feel like their jumping through hoops. Schools on the other hand, perpetuate mediocrity by not doing anything very well but claiming we do it all. Schools at our best, can serve to recognize a child’s interest and ability and connect them with somebody who can point them in the right direction. I spend much of my energy at work trying to figure out where a students genuine interest lies and trying to get them connected with like minded mentors and programs. However, there are many students who are beyond our reach.
As an involved parent, I will be able to recognize the interests and abilities of my children far better than the local elementary school. And we plan to. We will spend enough time with our children in a variety of settings while homeschooling to understand where our childrens interests and abilities lie and then we will connect them with the surrounding community members who will be able to show them how to proceed. We will devote significant school time hours to our childrens’ specific interests so that they can experience success in those realms. Once motivated by success, we will get out of their way and allow them to learn.