I have a friend, someone quite near and dear to me, who is currently interning with NBC in Sochi, Russia for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Of course, being the millennial that I am, I made sure to post a picture of us on Facebook with a perfectly-crafted, heartfelt caption on the day that she left. I expected copious likes and comments from people my friend did not even know to wish her well. I did not, however, expect the post to ignite a conversation about how we should teach our students the value of hard work (i.e. that opportunities only befall people who seek them out). It was interesting to see different perspectives from fellow educators, and here is my take on the whole “hard work” idea.
1. It is easier to work hard when you know there is opportunity out there.
For those of us educators that come from a comfortable backgrounds, the idea that hard work results in reward seems almost inherent. It can be hard to consider other perspectives, especially the unhappy scenario in which, no matter how hard one works, he or she cannot seem to catch a break. Don’t get me wrong; life is hard for everyone. However, how we learn to process hard circumstances is directly related to our personal experiences growing up.
In addition, the “American Dream” can sometimes seem like a romanticized myth. Sure, movies show us that people can “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and achieve opulent wealth despite everything they have faced. How many of us can say we know one of these people? If I had continually lived through traumatizing horrors and felt that my life was nothing but a perpetual cycle of hardship, it would be hard for me to stomach people telling me to simply “work hard.” Why should I if, in the end, it does not matter? We have to show our students that opportunities actually exist and that there are resources available to help people succeed. If we always deliver these stories to our students without tangible evidence that they are true, students will start to believe these anecdotes are fantasies. That is why I made sure to tell my students about my friend who is currently in Russia. Perhaps it would be refreshing to see that incredible things can happen to real people, not just characters in films “based on a true story.” My students were blown away by the story of my friend, and they seemed even more engaged and excited knowing that she was someone I, their teacher, knew personally.
2. Never Assume Anything
One of the most resonating concepts I learned in one of my education methods classes is to never assume anything about our students or their educational endeavors. A student might crave the experience of higher education, but not know where to start with the college admissions process, so we should not assume that they do. I know that this is reality, because it was reality for my mother, a first-generation college student who openly admits that she got to college thanks to her guidance counselor’s help throughout the whole process. This educator saw potential in my mother and sought her out to ensure that she had the opportunity to reach her full potential. Now, my mom is an extremely productive member of society, and because of her and my father, my sister and I have grown up as middle-class individuals with our sights set high. I am humble enough to say that I probably would not have gotten a college acceptance, scholarship, and travel opportunities or developed specific professional goals without my mom. I have worked hard, but I have been given support from someone who told me each day that I could “do anything I set my sights on.”
3. Do not forget that our world is becoming more and more transnational and our classrooms are becoming more and more diverse.
If knowing how resources is hard for some of our student populations that have grown up in the United States, how difficult must it be for those who were not born here or have grown up in a different culture? An unfortunate result of our lack of global education in the United States is that we are not familiar with the educational and societal structures of other countries. I repeatedly turn to an article called “The Values America Lives by” (by Robert Kohls; you can find it here https://transnet.act.nato.int/WISE/Entities/NATORedTea/ShoesMustR/ValuesAmer/file/_WFS/Values%20Americans%20Live%20By.pdf) that compares how Americans function on a daily basis to the lives of people in other societies. Value number one “Personal Control over the Environment and Responsibilities” (U.S.) versus “Fate” (other parts of the world) definitely applies to the world of public education. While it might be easy as teachers to think of certain students as fatalistic, we need to step back in these situations and realize that these students could be just as hard-working as others and are simply muddling through the American school system, an archetypal meritocrisy. How difficult it could be for these students to learn to “play school, which is indeed an institution certainly has routines and procedures that people must follow in order to achieve success!
As teachers, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves on different identities that will indefinitely emerge in our classroom. What is it like to grow up with a particular socioeconomic status? As an intellectually-gifted individual? As a first-generation college student? As someone whose culture whose culture privileges inheritance over self-help (another contrast in values according to Kohls)? All of these students are capable of working hard. Personally, I believe that most people in the world want success and want to work hard; they just might need a little help learning how to do so.
Social Justice. It is much easier to work hard if people know that opportunities do exist and that there are people willing to teach them how to seek out such opportunities.