Building self-worth shores up education’s future
by Judy Elliott
June 01, 2014 12:00 AM | 1188 views | 0 0 comments | 34 34 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In the end, being affirmed could mean more than affirmative action. Watching third-graders receive awards for good grades and stellar attendance, with teachers beaming, fellow students sharing “high fives,” my silent prayer went up: “Let this last!”

A couple of days later, at a program for rising seventh-graders, a double row of honor roll students filled the stage. They were dressed in their Sunday best, their families standing when their own were recognized. As the class leaves for the larger stage of middle school, the same prayer fits: “Let this last!”

Yet we feel the tug of independence waiting in the wings. Schedules will be more demanding. Parents, having been there and done that, know education is the way to a better life, but find themselves competing with the growing pains of their children.

You’re right. This is the season to put away back packs, let weary adolescent brains rest, welcome sleeping late and hope for a family vacation. Yet, we have this “Godzilla” reality, hovering on the edge, THE FUTURE, reminding us, more than half these students, entering college, will not finish.

With all of our resources, sea to shining sea, the precious third-graders, making perfect reading scores, live in a country with the worst drop-out rate in higher education of any place save Hungary! You read that right!

So, what happens along the way? How many shrugs and head shakes have we rendered, puzzling over high achieving students with good test scores, who give in to road blocks for financial aid or become invisible in a sea of college students, believing they don’t fit in?

“What a waste,” we say, as good brain power settles for hourly wages and jobs proving dead-end choices in five years.

Here’s the truth. The future for too many honor roll students is decided, not by their abilities, but by their parents’ incomes. Reading tells us when dividing national earnings into fourths, two-thirds of students coming from families in the top quarter graduate from college.

Students, even those with good SAT scores, whose families factor into the bottom one-fourth of wage earners, have a one in six chance of finishing college.

So, if you’re delving into the psychology of education, you want answers long before a class of college freshmen dwindles before your eyes. You want to know, in spite of family or ethnic backgrounds, how to ground students in self-esteem so their doubts about their abilities, anxieties they feel about being smart enough, do not short-change their futures.

And you need to know early on as they transition from small neighborhood schools to larger middle schools, then to classes in mega high schools.

Small classes. Experiences shared by older students, encouraging new ones. Teachers as mentors. A college choice within the realm of a good personal fit. All are building blocks to better grades, but, just as valuable, opportunities to be known by others, forging new paths to self-confidence.

It’s surprising to learn students believe being a smart kid is a “fixed quality.” Too many buy into the idea doing well in school is tied to who “gets it” and who doesn’t, and that can’t be changed by burning the midnight oil.

We could judge that thinking as an easy way out, but hints a student does not measure up, feeling lost in a crowd or language as a barrier can bring on feelings of not belonging. Why study if you don’t think you’re smart enough?

Helplessness can be a beginning symptom for failure when self-doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now, if we could only clone the confidence of a third-grader! Because he was on the honor roll, our grandson, a student at Marietta’s Center for Advanced Academics, was invited to eat lunch with the assistant principal, Mr. Yoder.

Later, he told me he and Mr. Yoder have a lot in common. “We both love peanut butter,” he smiled. Now, if only there are more Mr. Yoders to see him through!

Judy Elliott lives and writes in Marietta.
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