Thursday, March 29, 2012


This is on my mind today because a student recently asked if I would talk to her about my previous experience having flunked out of college, yet having gone back to school and become a teacher. I had shared that I had not done especially well in high school - I can't remember at this point if I was in danger of not graduating, but I certainly wasn't a good student - and that I had flunked out of college in a rather gloriously bad way - I had a 0.00 GPA both semesters, which is easy to obtain if you never go to class or take any tests. I simply wasn't ready to for college when I was 18, and I wasn't ready until I was in my late 20s. I'm neither proud nor ashamed of this; it's simply part of my past, like having grown up where I did. That I've completed college and have 30 graduate credits negates whatever embarrassment I may have otherwise felt.

A few weeks ago in one of my classes, we were discussing a difficult assignment - the rhetorical analysis paper - and why teachers assign difficult things that may or may not ever be used once you leave college. (And that's a different discussion: You simply can't know what you may or may not need to know at some indeterminate point in your life, so students are taught a range of subjects in the hopes that they're being given a basic foundation.)

It was lighthearted, but a valid conversation, and we (and by "we" I mean "I") got on the subject of education vs. college. This is not something I'd ever heard anyone tell me, and I've put a lot of thought into this.

I'd told my students that there can be a distinct difference between college and education; that because one does not go to college does not mean that one is stupid, and that going to college does not necessarily indicate high intelligence. I said that there a distinction could be made between "college" and "education" - and some of them, I could just see this look that told me that they'd never thought of such a thing before. I asked if we could agree that we have a need for people who know how to do useful things like fix cars or do electrical work and the like, and most of the students nodded their heads. I said that many of these positions require post-secondary education, but that this didn't necessarily mean that the people who had acquired extra training had gone to college, although it's common now that community colleges and vocational schools offer certificates or two-year degrees.

(On a side note, I have no patience for people who tell me they're "too old" to go to college. That to me says you're simply not interested in learning. You don't have to go to college, but you can still learn things.)

My having been a terrible student who didn't do well in high school and who flunked out of college has, I believe, made me a better teacher than I could have been had I been a great student and done things "the right way." (I did do well later on.) There are a lot of great teachers who were fantastic students in high school, went to college at 18, did wonderfully, graduated at 22, and immediately began teaching. There's nothing wrong with this, but in terms of advising students how to navigate the non-academic world, experience in the non-academic world can be integral. At least, for me it was. And it has helped me enormously when talking to the mostly non-traditional students that I'm teaching because I don't believe that everyone needs college to be successful. I believe in post-secondary education, but I don't believe that always needs to be in the form of a college degree.

I think so many students were, like I was, told that they had to go to college, that college was the only way to succeed, that something beyond high school was vital. And it is true that post-secondary education is vital, but I can't remember a single conversation I've ever had with someone who helped me explore options other than college. It was simply understood that college was the end result, and that it must be done at age 18.

I didn't know how to explain that I was tired of school; I was mentally exhausted and I wanted to work and have some financial independence, to be on my own for awhile. I had no idea what I wanted to do, and going to college would not have helped me find a direction; what was singularly helpful was having experience working and not being surrounded by teachers and the world of education. I needed first a different type of exposure. It simply wasn't a consideration as far as my family was concerned, and for quite some time I was hurt by this lack of understanding. I understand their view and I would be in a better positoin now to explain my thinking, but I'm aware that there are different and possibly better ways to go about presenting a student with her options. I think I would have done better sooner had I gone to work out of high school.

Of course, at the moment, that's an academic exercise, since I have the college degree now and, ironically, I've wound up as a teacher. But I worked in a variety of jobs and wasn't sure I wanted to be a teacher until I had wandered into Stony Brook University's Writing Center, which happened to be under the direction of someone who was the antithesis of most of the previous bosses I'd had. That work allowed me to explore the field and ask questions, which was the most helpful.

In other words, I was talked to.

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