Setting Students Up for Success

Sometimes it can be difficult to think of a topic to blog about. Today is one of those times. So, I googled "blog ideas" and read a few lists for inspiration. One suggested a blog focussed on something that happened in high school that changed one's life forever. I'm not certain that I have such a dramatic story to share, but the suggestion did spark a memory of a teacher who recognized my strengths, had a sense of what skills would benefit me in the future, and then provided an opportunity that has served me well ever since. Was it life changing? Perhaps. Perhaps not. (These days hyperbole runs rampant and everything seems to be significant and impactful, at least on Facebook.) But it does point to how a teacher can shape a student's future.

During high school, like many university-bound students, my schedule was packed with advanced math (and eventually calculus), sciences (biology and physics), advanced literature and language, and French. At the time, the prevailing wisdom was that this combination was the pathway to success in higher education. I remember being counselled out of courses I wanted to take, like history or art, because I "needed" math and science. That I intended to go into a Bachelor of Music degree didn't change anyone's opinion of the relevance of art and history. And music was largely relegated to after school.

In the combination of required courses and desirable courses (if proceeding on to university), was a requirement that all students take one of two "business" courses: consumer studies or entrepreneurship. I chose consumer studies.

Not long into the school year, my instructor (Mr. F) realized that the course wasn't very challenging for me. He also realized that if I were to take it as an independent study, it would free up one period for me to take something else. Now, you might jump to the conclusion that I got to take that history or art course that I'd been counselled out of. You'd be wrong. Mr. F had his own ideas about the course that I should pick up: a computer course. I can't recall the exact title, but I do remember it had the word microsystems in it. He was adamant that success in the future would be tied to knowledge of and facility with computers. Everyone needed computer skills. I assume we discussed this notion with my parents and the guidance counsellor, but I don't recall the details now. All I know is that at the start of the next term, I picked up the computer course and continued consumer studies as an independent study under Mr. F's supervision.

The computer course that I took was DOS-based. I remember sitting in the classroom creating directories, changing directories, copying files, erasing files, formatting drives, etc. Not only did I excel at it, but I also enjoyed it, which came as a bit of a surprise to me. The next year, I signed up for more computer courses, including one that focussed on desktop publishing. I remember using DOS-based WordPerfect to replicate as closely as possible a document the teacher provided in hard copy. I loved the challenge and I had an eye for it.

As the years have passed, these high school courses have served me well. I can troubleshoot most issues with computers myself — and I still dip into DOS to fix problems when that's the easiest way. I taught myself html and maintained websites during my graduate degrees. I've embraced technology and can use it proficiently, and even ran tech for a major international conference with 500 delegates in 2011. Perhaps the most important and lasting impact of my high school experience, then, is my comfort level with technology and my ability to problem-solve (a skill which certainly extends beyond technology).

It is quite possible, then, that Mr. F's recognition of my strengths and vision for skill sets of the future did change my life forever. But the lesson in this is the impact that one teacher can have on the future success of one student. As educators, we need to recognize the gifts and talents that our students already possess, provide them with opportunities to develop in areas where they are lacking (or simply haven't tested yet), and ensure that the advice and guidance we provide isn't a cookie-cutter approach from the prevailing wisdom of the time, but one that sets the student up for success on their own chosen life path.