Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Worried About College? Be Like Sara!

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Sara came home from a softball game last spring and was surprised to see her father’s car in the driveway. May was a busy month in his line of work, so he usually went back to the office after watching Sara pitch, finished a little paperwork, and came home in time for a late dinner.

That day, he greeted his daughter in the kitchen. “Nice game, Ace!”

“Thanks, Daddy. Why are you home?”

He beamed at his 11th-grade daughter and said, “I have a surprise. There’s an overseas community service project heading to a small village in Japan. They’ve opened a large orphanage there for children who lost parents in the earthquake, and they need volunteers to help with the babies, so the residents can rebuild their homes.”

Sara peeled an orange while her father continued. 

“You’d be there four days, and you’d be making a difference in the world. Your grades are strong and your pitching is great, but I think something like this could put you over the top at the colleges we’re talking about. The Web site for the project is up on the computer. What do you say?”

Sara continued to peel the orange. “Can we talk about it at dinner?”

Her father was a little deflated, but he smiled back. “Sure, honey. I’m going to run back to the office for a little bit, but I’ll see you at seven.”

Dad came through the kitchen door at 7:15 and quickly took his place at the table with the rest of the family. After more congratulations for Sara’s great game and a little razzing about her hair from her tech-savvy brother John, her dad said “So, how about Japan?”

Sara put her fork down slowly and looked up. “It’s a great idea, Dad, but I looked on the Web site. Does this trip really cost $6000?”

Her father choked on his ice water, while Sara’s mom gave him a long, cold stare.

“We can afford this, Sara,” he said, smiling faintly. “It’s about your future.”

Sara looked down at her placemat again, and swallowed hard. “Well, I looked up the name of the town I’d be going to. It turns out Habitat for Humanity is working there, too, and they need $4000 for a new pump so the town can get fresh water again. I also called the Boys and Girls Club down on Wilson Street, and they said they could really use some help this summer.

“I sure appreciate the offer, Daddy, but don’t you think it would be better if I stayed here, and we sent the $4000 to Habitat for Humanity? That way, the town would have fresh water forever, John could get that new computer he’ll need for high school next year, we’d have a little money left over for my college fund, and I could still make a difference in the world. It would just be a difference in my own neighborhood.”

Sara’s mother did a very bad job of trying to chew nonchalantly, while John tried hard to wipe the tears out of his eyes in a 14-year-old macho fashion. Her father’s shoulders relaxed, as he smiled almost to himself, and said “Yeah, honey. That’s a great idea.”

Sara will be a senior next year — but the question you should be asking yourself is not “Where will she get in?”

The question to consider is, “Does it really matter?”

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

A Counselor’s Thank You to Teachers

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


We hear about all the great teachers in the counseling office.  The one who set the times tables to the tune of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” ensuring kids will remember them forever, even if it will take a while to get to eight times nine.  Mr. Jones, the history teacher who dressed up like Benjamin Franklin for an entire week and never once broke character.  The tenth grade English teacher who finally explained “I after e” in a way that made sense.  When you put that much thought into a lesson, it makes for memorable teaching.

Of course, that’s not the only way teachers become memorable.  The teacher who said just the right words at just the right time to the bully who had incredible art talent, making the student more comfortable with who they really were, and less of a bully.  The teacher who wore the cut-rate perfume a special needs student gave her at Christmas, every time that student had a spelling test—the same perfume she’d wear when attending that student’s graduation from medical school. The teacher who shows up at the Saturday soccer league and cheers loudly for all of her students on the sidelines, even though her students are spread throughout both teams, and it’s forty degrees out. 

You can’t analyze a test score to determine what these teachable moments do to the learning and learning habits of students, but everyone seems to understand what they do to students’ learning, and students’ lives.  Like recess, these teachable moments inspire in ways we can’t quite measure, but we still know their worth is beyond measure.

These aren’t just discrete, feel-good stories.  Most of my counseling work for the last thirteen years has involved working with students in college placement.  In that time, every student—every single one—has had the chance to go to college; many have earned at least one merit scholarship, and for those who have been out for four years or more, nearly all of them have finished college on time. 

Almost none of that is due to me.  It’s a tribute to the teacher who took a group of six year-olds into the woods for an entire class period and told them to watch and listen—and they did; to the teacher who had flags from 45 nations in his fourth-grade Social Studies classroom, and talked about the country each flag represented for a full year; to the two teachers who took significant scorn from their colleagues every year they wanted to team teach Lord of the Flies, because it threw such a wrench into the middle school schedule. 

Making the most of college—and learning a trade for that matter—isn’t at all about getting in.  It’s about the absorbing, the becoming, the grappling of new ideas that doesn’t end until the idea is now an honored friend. That state of mind, the acquisition of the habits needed to do that kind of learning, is the essence of teaching.  It is alive and well in the classrooms of the colleagues I eat lunch with.  More important, it Is in the hearts, minds, and souls of the students they serve.

This week reminds me of the story of the principal who was interviewing candidates for a middle school English position.  The first five interviews were all remarkably short, where the principal asked each candidate what they taught.  When they responded, “I teach English”, the principal said, “I see.  Well, thank you for coming in.”

The interview with the sixth candidate started with the same question, “What do you teach?”  When the candidate responded, “Why, I teach students about the wonders of the English language”, the principal responded with, “I see.  Tell me more about that.”

It is one thing to consider Teacher Appreciation Day as a triumph over the long odds of limited budgets, aging facilities, crowded classrooms, and wonky Internet connections.  That’s an important discussion to have, but this week is more about those who serve, and what they leave their students with. In the end, that is all teaching ever was; it is what it must continue to be, if our world is to continue to flourish.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Lessons Learned from This Year’s College Counseling Efforts

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Celebrations are still going on to honor the postsecondary choices high school seniors are making, but it isn’t too early to look back on this year’s college and career advising efforts, and see what we might learn to make things a little easier for next year’s class.  There’s ample truth to the saying that the only constant is change, and that’s definitely the case here.  Consider these points, as you review your year, and plan ahead for the Class of 2019:

Applications are Up—Again  If there was ever a year for college applications to decline, it was this year.  A decline in the birthrate is predicted to shrink high school graduating classes through 2024, and it was supposed to hit nearly every state pretty hard this year in particular.  That doesn’t make it too far of a leap to conclude college applications should decline as well.

Nope.  Schools like USC and the University of Michigan saw application increases of about 14% each in a year when applications were supposed to be flat.  While some of U-M’s increase could be attributed to their new scholarship incentive for low income families, no one expected anything like this.

Safeties Were Less Safe  This continued increase at selective colleges mean some colleges that had plenty of room now find themselves the beneficiaries of some high performing students who had nowhere else to go.  While these students may only take up the spots at the honors colleges, their presence increases the average GPA and scores of a college’s class, meaning those colleges are likely to be more competitive next year.  The result? If you’ve been recommending the same schools year after year as sure shots, it’s time to review the list.

Sure Things Were Less Sure  More applicants also meant that selective colleges had students from more high schools to choose from—and this added breadth of choice led to its own confusion.  Counselors report admissions decisions that are just harder to understand, with some students being denied at colleges that took students with lower grades, but stronger essays, or lower test scores, but stronger work outside the class.  Looking at the entire student—also known as holistic review—has always made predicting admission difficult.  Add in the increased number of applicants, and it seemed like everything was up in the air this year.  Look for more of the same next year.

“College Isn’t for Everyone”, Part I  This was also the year when more and more counselors were taking to social media to advocate for students who were making postsecondary plans other than four years of college.  A resurgence of interest in technical careers and skill trades is clearly on the rise, but counselors will want to make sure not to get too carried away.  Counseling curricula should include a full view of all of the choices for life after high school, and ways to help students critically think and self-reflect their way to making the choices that are best for them.  That may mean more pedagogy focused on careers, but that shouldn’t come at the exclusion of exploration of all the college options.

“College Isn’t for Everyone”, Part II  This is especially true for schools where a small percentage of students go to college, where  college exploration should begin in elementary school, in order to get students—and especially parents—used to the idea of college as an option (but not a requirement.)  If done badly, “College Isn’t for Everyone” can quickly devolve into “Not Everyone is College Material”, and all the elitist, racist arguments that phrase conjures up. We must do better.