In our ongoing debate on report cards and letter grades this past week, one of the comments I have heard a few times is “how are students going to be prepared for the real world?” I have to admit, this concept of the “real” world being something external to school has always bothered me a bit. Just what is it that people mean when they talk about this harsh and never experienced real world that exists somehow miraculously when a student grabs their graduation certificate and walks out the doors of secondary school? Is it something they’ve never encountered? I think not.
Throughout their 13 years of school, students navigate and experience complex social groups. They deal with peers, sometimes pleasant, sometimes not. They manage conflict, have deadlines and encounter consequences as significant as being removed from school if their behaviour is severe. Five times a year, they are evaluated and reports are sent home to their parents indicating their progress. Sometimes the comments and results are an affirmation of strong skills and abilities and sometimes the results and comments are deeply discouraging and hard to accept. Students deal with structures of power – within their social groups, from teachers, and from administration. They encounter competition and they know what it is to win or lose in many ways. This sounds a lot like any workplace to me.
Just how long are students in school in a year? Let’s say that students are in school about 7.5 hours a day (8:30 – 4:00) and about 190 days a year. According to my calculations, in a calendar year, that amount of time looks like the pie chart below. Now of course there are huge variables. Time varies between elementary and secondary, what about homework, extra-curricular activities, and other school connections? The point I am simply trying to make is that school is not a student’s whole life. We are only a piece of the pie. The home and community are a huge part of this life as well.
In my experience, the douse of cold water comes when students are given financial independence. When students no longer live at home and have to finance their own life is a time of enormous transition. For 18 years at least, a majority of students have had a roof over their heads, meals on the table, and clean clothes appear like magic in their dresser drawers. They are transported in mom’s taxi and given modest disposable cash when needed. Medical and dental appointments are made for them and critical care when they are ill is all part of the deal we call home.
I must acknowledge that for many students as well, all the above is not part of the deal. Families struggle with poverty, even getting shelter, food and clothes is a significant challenge. I want to acknowledge this and yes, this is huge part of their “real world” from a young age and for many years. Also, unfortunately, many students do not have a stable home and life’s basics including safety and security are a need. Poverty is a huge issue in our society and its impact is felt throughout. If people say that these students are not ready for the real world perhaps we should all walk a mile in their shoes to see what their world really looks like. I think for many of us this would be a dose of reality for which we are unprepared.
Preparing students for life after secondary school – in that transition to independence, is the responsibility of us all. It does take a village to raise a child and school is only one aspect of the village. From what I see, school is very much the real world. The major shock for students is in the transition away from home where students need to find their own shelter, market their skills to get a job and establish their own financial independence. As long as students are not financially independent they won’t be living the life that we all do where we work for money, establish a level of living we desire and manage ourselves, our families, and our budgets to live the lives we want.
Schools can and do teach financial literacy. We teach how to manage budgets, pay bills, plan for a career, market skills, and we provide work experience. We teach students how to write resumes and all the things a person needs to help get ready for independence. But no matter how much we prepare students, when the umbilical cord is cut from home and students are asked to get their own job and shelter that is something in which the home plays a massive role. In my experience, it is done quite well with a gradual release of responsibility as students find their own feet in the next stage of their development in life. All in all, I think we do it pretty well.
So the next time someone says that students aren’t prepared for the real world, I hope you think about just what that world entails. Separate from financial independence which is a huge deal – is life in secondary school as you remember it much different from life at work? Were the social situations similar, did you experience power structures, expectations, were there consequences for not doing things you should? Did you have opportunity, and were there both times of celebration and times of disappointment? Likely I imagine there was.
As Dorothy said in Wizard of Oz, “there is no place like home.” As we watch our children grow from birth to their own independence, their real world is one that evolves hopefully with care, support and a gradual release of responsibility that allows them to stand on their own when the time is right. In the meantime, the real world is right there, students live in it every day at home, at school, and in the communities in which we live.