Under-expected Achievement – One year Teaching K-12, and Counting!

Thankful for my social media network, my anniversary teaching K-12 in my public school district would have passed me by! Without my social network, I would most likely have made no fussy attention to my anniversary. After all, I have worked in other places without ever being vigilant or celebrated an anniversary.

Thankfully, my LinkedIn network sent me congratulatory messages. Initially, I assumed the congrats were for my seven-year and counting, crippling social philanthropy. Not until I logged into my LinkedIn profile, and realized that March 2015 is when I started working.

Even after finding out the cause of the hullaballoo about my anniversary from among my social network, I did not get too excited; I wonder why? Well, “It is just teaching,” I said to myself.

“Plus, it is not a job I set out going to school for. Nor does it pay me any living wage to excite me,” my next thoughts.

But congrats messages continued trickling in, prompting me to reflect on this achievement. Perhaps the fact that other people are celebrating me more than I was, should have signaled to me, why I should treasure this achievement? After all, I am enjoying teaching K-12! True, I never set out to be a K-12 teacher, do not have an Education degree or full teaching license.

I am a Substitute Teacher [not yet permanently] employed with the public school system. I am one of the many teachers, recruited to fill-in, per need, for any homeroom teacher, or academic/professional school activity. I am one of the many convenient hires, increasingly a feature of the public school system, as in many other employment establishments, when the government does not want to offer a living wage to all its employability people. Like corporates, government is now seeking cheap available labor to do its difficult, dirty and dangerous jobs, without much financial responsibility or optimal workers welfare/compensation/protection.

That teaching is a difficult job is indisputable. It is also technically dirty and dangerous; those whom the teacher tries to protect might get one dirty. Indeed, working with children is not for the faint-hearted; they are as adorable as they are challenging. I often say, a teacher carries the entire world on his/her shoulders —of students, their parents, school administration, school supervisors, lawmakers, school budget dispensers, and the entire public, all invested in school output, more than input.

I confess that I had under-expected my achievement teaching K-12. Indeed, it is a big feat! This, from a girl who had sworn never to teach “little kids,” preferring instead, to stick to college and graduate-level students, “more mature and manageable,” or so I had convinced myself. Venturing into teaching K-12 was a path of transition back into the world of work, and because of my changed resume, which now primarily reads, “A Mother.”

I decided to venture into teaching K-12, to gain a deeper practical insight into the school curriculum and school system at the lower levels/early stages of formal education. Particularly because I did not obtain my earlier education in here in the United States, my new country of belonging. The educator in me is always curious about systems of learning I am not familiar with. I would like to be a great help to my child, an elementary schooler, as well as my new-found love for working with children, especially since becoming a parent.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not new to teaching young learners. As one of the last-born children in my family, I grew up with plenty of nieces and nephews, whom I played with, helped take care of, and equipped them with the “Children’s experience.” I enjoy hanging out with children, keeping them occupied, learning through giggling.

I enjoy the innocence of kids. I enjoy learning through them. I enjoy utilizing the lessons I learn from my child into my classrooms. Yes, Minecraft is an acceptable citation, when explaining logical, technical activities, or very brevity and resilience like the “Enderman.” So, are Dinosaurs perfect for illustrating how old one’s grandparent might be. And when you need to encourage young learners to “try something it might tastes or turn out good,” or that, “when you wait, you can play, sing or imagine anything,” Daniel Tiger is a perfect to quote.

So, to all those, like me, who venture into teaching, go out there, and courageously engage with young learners. They have so much to teach us, about ourselves, about our abilities, and about our own parenting. I am so glad that, I also get a chance to teach in Special Needs classrooms, engaging with autistic children, emotional support, gifted, learning, and reading support, life skills, partial hospitalization, and early intervention. I am grateful for the opportunity and a challenge, that came to me as an under-expected achievement!

Aluta Continua!

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Of Course, You can be Elite and Poor!

There is a public perception that the poor or disposed cannot be elites, just like the rest of us. Or they cannot harbor elite aspirations. We are shocked by media images, showing refugees leaving their homes, walking in the middle of everywhere, with mobile smart phones in hand. OR watching satellite TV, while living in squalid camps . Some question, how refugees can wear makeup, or brand name clothes or shoes? As well, we are surprised that the poor and homeless sleeping on streets, own mobile phones, or ‘plenty’ of property!

Oprah Winfrey, the queen of High Society, added weight to this thinking, back in 2007, when she said that US inner-city schools kids only cared for iPods and sneakers [as opposed to children in South Africa, who value for education].

But, can’t being “Elite” and “Poor” be two peas in the same pod?

Here is the definition of Elite, according to my Mac Dictionary,

          • a group or class of people seen as having the greatest power and influence within a society, especially because of their wealth or privilege: the country's governing elite /the silent majority were looked down upon by the liberal elite.

By this definition, “privilege” comes to one via different avenues: education attainment, alma mater, residence, racial categorization, social circles or class, family background, gender, sexual orientation, and many more. The one I am most inclined to explore herein is “privilege through education”.

Education by attainment, grade completed or alma meter can ascribe elite status to a person, regardless of one’s social standing, or amount of money and wealth they possess, in a time period. Going to an Ivy League school already adorns one with privilege that can neither be denied nor wash off. One is plugged into a social circle that has “the greatest power and influence within a given society.” Often, “de créme de la créme”, who design the rules of engagement, decide what others should follow, design and invent all kinds of social material or cultural consumptions. They are the envy of those who might never have walked the same path of Ivy League status, and they wear the badge of “highest attainment” in society.

The emptiness of the pockets of an educated person at any time, does little to diminish her/his comparative privileged, or undermine the choices and options at our disposal. Education informs the jobs we pursue, the nature of employment we engage in and the salaries we accept. We even choose the neighborhoods we live in and the schools we scout for our children, informed by our education background. How we present ourselves in society, and who we interact with, is a symptom of our elitism.

While one may not be in good financial standing, at a time, have rich family, or grow up in underprivileged circumstances should not imply s/he has to present her/himself ruggedly or stop dreaming big. Yes, one can still aim for the iPhone, the big screen TV or the big purse. Education gives one the means, courage and networks to re-define oneself, on own terms. For instance, if one is trapped in undesirable circumstances, and ‘chooses’ to move to a new ‘safer’ location, guided by our privileged knowledge of the resources available, and the networks disposed to her/him.

So, why is society shocked when refugees, the homeless or poor seem to display elitism? Why are we shocked that the homeless desire the same things we do – a comfortable bed, healthy meal or a soothing drink? Can never fully forecast, predict or control how our lives [will] evolve? Anymore, anytime, can lose the security of income, home or social standing and become a pauper, yet still retain their elite ascription.

Don’t the poor and disposed belong to the “Educated Elite”, some with Ivy League degrees, only to “wake up one day on the wrong side of the bed?” That they aspire for an Ivy League education, a star on the Hall or Wall of Fame, and a seat not the board of the most prestigious football association or philanthropic organization? Once upon a time, they had the same privilege as we do, owned a home, belonged to a country or high class social circles, and will once again recreate those lives.

Pictures myself for a minute; I would imagine that, even without financial security, I would still have access to several resources for self-advancement or my children’s success. Without wealth, I could still enroll my child in academic and social programs that would enhance his own privilege. I could choose where to invest my money. I am privileged to value access to a mobile smartphone, and internet. Knowing how to write, blog, publish is a privilege of elitism.

If the poor desire sneakers and iPod, let them. Perhaps those material desires, like a first pair of hard-won sneakers, could be the beginning to many more. Better yet, their ticket out of the harsh conditions of their childhood, through hard work. Living their dreams in whatever form they maybe, could eventually transform their lives, and the lives of their immediate families, friends and the neighborhoods. By expanding their dreams [of owning [a] pair of sneaker[s] through hard earned money, their careers might in future become the building blocks for new sneaker shops in the “hood”.

Like Former NBA star, Devean George, who grew up in the hood. Recently, together with his former classmate, they are transforming his North Minneapolis “hood”, with affordable apartments, healthy food stores, children’s library, in a neighborhood where crime and violence ruled the days of his childhood. His childhood dream has turned into reality, and will transform education access, quality and attainment, eating and health habits, provide affordable safe housing and create employment for an entire community.

And maybe one day, the poor will start a journey of transformation into elitism. Because being poor and elite are not mutually exclusive.

Of puppy crushes and hard-on – Let’s Talk About “S” Bebe

Parents, guardians and educators of young minds, let’s imagine this happened to any of you. I will not disclose my sources…but as a mother of a seven-year old, it gives me cause to worry.

Here we go…retold in [first person]

“I am wounded. Terribly wounded!!

I just had a talk with a six-year old about sex, crushes and hard-ons. Can you believe it? No! I cannot. I am crying, internally. My tear glands are not doing me a favor; I want to sob.
M. I still have butterflies about Leigh [Not real name].” [Followed by shy giggles.
“How do you feel when you have butterflies about her?” I asked
“When I think about her, my pee pee gets hard. Right now, my pee pee is hard”

That’s the moment I panicked, and realized that I need help. 
“Well, I am not a man, and I do not know what to do when your pee pee gets hard,” I responded to him. I am going to ask a friend, who is a man and a teacher for advice on what to do.”

Hitherto, I was playing it cool and silly. In fact, I might have stirred him up on his ’silly’ infatuation, and resultant “hard-on”. For one, he’s had a ‘girlfriend’ since pre-K, that he dropped for a new one in Kindergarten, I bet there’s gonna be one from 1st Grade. 2) I imagined, his ‘love story’ was similar to mine back when I was five.

When I was in Kindergarten, I got myself duped by a grown man that he was going to marry me. The next day, I came home from school, took a shower, packed all my bags and waited outside our family home for Mr. Y to pick me up and take me off to his home, our new marital home [Never mind that he was probably over twenty years of age]. Not only didn’t he show up that day, it took a while before he showed up again on our block.  So, I had to face repeated humiliation from my bigger brother and sister, mocking me for dropping out of school in Kindergarten, and going off to get married. I bet Mr. Y did not even give [the marriage] a second thought, because it was joke to him. He probably forgot his “proposal” as soon as he’d stepped away from our neighborhood.

Interestingly, I grew up without a love for men or marriage, not because Mr. Y stood me up. My own family drama speaks volumes about this. But that is a story to be told and re-told many times elsewhere. 

Anyway, this time I freaked out, and wrote to a friend, who is both male and a teacher. A bonus, he is an American, with a multi-cultural background, who has lived and taught in several countries outside the United States. I feel he would be best positioned to give a male opinion, but also with a cultural context to it. I do not have personal experience of little male boys  talking about “crushes and hard-ons” to their parents.

As someone from a different generation, I am quite slow to catch up with this seemingly “hyper-sexual” generation. Young minds of today know a lot about sex than I knew at their age, and perform more sex than I did back in the days. Thanks to the abundant ‘open’ and [il]liberal media, which is exposing to children as young as three to daily love stories – watch Madagascar, The Lion King, Lego Movie, Incredibles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Frozen, you name it! There’s a love story with someone getting married, heartbroken or kissing, followed by eewws and eewws, from the young watchers.

I know a thing or two about what goes on in the Elementary School System, where kids express or act out their crushes with classmates, or tell their friends, who often tease them about who they have a crush on. Unbeknownst to me, the teasing can grow into infatuation and feelings of love and desires for kissing their crush!

As I waited for “expert advice” from my friend, I decided to engage my six-year old into a “Let’s Talk About Sex, bebe”

Mom: “Do you know what sex is?”
6-yr-old: “Yes. When people lie on top of each other.”
Me ; [oh oh TMI -internal panic]. “Where did you see that?”
6-yr: “On TV, one of the shows. Even Simba had Nala [in The Lion King.] They loved each other and made a baby.”
Me. “Uhm! But the people you saw on TV were not young, right? They are adults who are married or living together?”
6-yr: “Yes. But some kids also talk about sex [coyly answered]. Even my classmates.”

Overwhelmed, I could not run away from the talk anymore. I had to break the ‘innocence’ to protect the ‘innocence’. Does that even make sense?

I told him it is normal for pees pees of young boys to young boys to get hard. I let him know that, it is ok to have feelings for girls. It means we appreciate others.
I asked, “Does she feel the same about you? Does she want to be your boyfriend?”
“She did not say that to me,” he responded

I told him, “It is important to be careful because if the girls does not feel the same, she could tell her mother and her mother may not like it. Then she would tell the teacher, and you might get in trouble. I might also get in trouble for exposing you to movies or TV that have sex.”

I went on, “Plus, you are still too young to focus too much on sex and loving a girl. You have many years to go. You should wait until you are an adult, then you can get married and have a wife and then you can start engaging in sex. It is a huge responsibility for a six-year old like you.”

Yes, I mentioned that some young boys have sex with girls, get them pregnant and then have to take are of them. So, they drop out of school to start working for their family. Sometimes it does not work out, and if they cannot afford to take care of their family, they could be sent to jail. 

At that moment, I realized that he was scared. “I won’t talk about sex anymore,” he told me.
“It is ok to tell me how you feel,” I said. In fact I am glad that you told me, that means you trust me. But don’t think about sex too much. You are still young.” 
Another thought occurred to me, to ask him how he feels about each of the girls who were in his Kindergarten class. 

Ki- I don’t really like her because she cares a lot about fashion, make up, and sometimes she is mean. She also likes to sit next to K all the time
Vi – She gets in trouble so much. Other people, Q, A and E say mean things to her like, she has sludge on her hands (the things you have in the nose) 
Bri and Eli- They have too much braids! 
H – She’s kind of shy, like Jac
Ab – Her eyes look big when she has glasses on
Gr – She’s kind of weird. Sometimes, with her right eye, she’s looking left, and with her left eye she’s looking right
Ch – She’s mean. Remember when you were teaching in my class, and she was being mean to some people!
Ln – Too much K! She always wants to sit next to K. I sit with all my best friends, A, J, V, E, But she wants to sit only next to K.
K – She’s a good person, she’s good in school, beautiful, stylish and nice 

Then, I suggested that we check the internet for guidance, “What to do when your six-year old has crush?”

We read all info together. Most of the information we found reiterated what I had told him: that all young boys experience erections; they also get infatuated with girls. But I also learned that it is important not to make your child feel guilty about their feelings, and not make them feel it is wrong to share how they feel with you.  It was good for him to hear a written opinion from the authority even kids like him know, “Google”.
http://www.steadyhealth.com/topics/erections-in-young-boys-is-it-normal

Moreover, my “expert teacher/guidance counselor” wrote back to reassure me that the body is taking charge, and he has no way of controlling it. He told me it is good to let him know that it is natural for an erection to happen when he gets the butterflies, but he should keep his private part private. Like me, my “Expert teacher” agrees it is great my six-year old trusts me enough to confide in me.” 

There you have it! How I dread this story happening to me, with my seven-year old! That one day, he will come to me, crying about his crushes, at this tender age. I would want to tell him, you still have all the way to college before you start worrying about girls. You should wait until you get married.

Interestingly, last weekend, COM asked me, “how does one pick the girl they wish to marry. How do they decide on the one?” I had to tell him about meeting somebody, getting to know them, their family and friends, and treating them nice. Then you can ask the person, if they will marry you?

“Then, how do you meet the people who you went to Elementary school with, when you are grown?”

Sometimes, people keep in touch. That is, keep communicating. Sometimes we lose contact. Many people do not marry the people they new from elementary school, but meet people in other places like college, work, gym, community, on the bus or train.”
“Once you are married, I continued, then you can have sex with your partner and have children, if you like.” [I hope against hope that he would not ask me, but why did you and daddy have me without being married…]

Just as I was getting to pat myself on the back, he told me, “Mommy, I know you can be married and still not have sex.”
“Really? Why? I asked.
“Co’s dad and mom do not have sex,” came his response
“How do you know?” I am getting freaked out.
“Co told me!” COM says.

Oh well! It is really about time we have the “BIG TALK”. One of these days, I will sit down COM And tell him, “Let’s Talk About Sex, Bebe”

Re-Learning to Write Academically

I am still trying to write an abstract for an academic conference paper! Since January this year; you better believe it!

I don’t know what has happened to my intellectual ingenuity, my art of writing, my academic genius, and my conferencing skills, especially academic conferencing!

IMG_3535I started presenting at international academic conferences in college, and inspired plenty of colleagues at higher academic levels than myself, in graduate and post-graduate studies, to engage in presenting papers at academic conferences. In fact, I got the titled “Dr. Lwanga”, way before I became one. I had to correct the conference organizers, panelists and co-participants several times that I am not officially Dr. Lwanga; not a PhD, yet.“You should enroll in Doctoral studies!” they often said.…  I am yet to become “Dr. Lwanga”, but that is a story for another day.

Here I am, umpteen years later. I cannot gather my thoughts intellectually together to construct an academic paper abstract! A painful reality. Not because I am lost for topics to write about, or have no computer, sick fingers, lost my head or eye sight, or cannot squeeze in a tit bit of time, for a few lines.

I am struggling with how to put together an intelligible argument. How do I talk about Teaching and Learning”, which is the topic I would love to address for the conference on “Education”? How do I construct arguments on learning to learn from Young Learners? How do I investigate teaching multicultural children in a predominantly monocultural education setting? How can I address Teacher’s welfare in a student-biased education system? How about interrogating that holy grail “Gifted and Talented”, or the “Different Shades of Special Needs Education”.

Bet, you have a little understanding why I am conflicted about what to write. I am still trying to figure out which topic works best, which I could expound on and give plenty of meat.

So, here I am, close to six months, and still without an definite topic. Still contemplating, what the Topic or Title is going to be? Or the gist of the argument? I am not sure whether the paper format will be: 1) a poster presentation; 2) work-in-progress; 3) fully argued out research paper or; 4) research proposal/abstract? I know I am leaning more toward, #2, with a better potential of allowing me expound on it for future post-graduate studies. Yes, that “Holy D” is still on my head-roof, Ensh’allah!

Learning to Teaching from How Children Learn. OR Children Teaching Teachers how to Teach or Teaching a Multicultural Classroom in a Monocultural Schooling System. Yes! Yes! I think I finally got something there. And Curriculum, Research and Development sounds like great forage for me. Three topics already! Viva procrastination; that allows me to switch off for a while and turn on again.

Now, onto thinking about the thesis…What is the conference theme again? zzzz

Profiling Kids By What they Write

Profiling carries a negative connotation, and is pretty much a taboo in our society! More scary “profiling kids”, especially within a very diverse setting like a school environment. If like me, you are an educator, you are expected to “keep all personal thoughts to own-self!”

Perhaps there is an interesting angle to profiling?

I very much enjoyed my fifth graders yesterday! They were a great joy! I had the joy of working with them on writing in the ELA class. On one of the assignments, students were required to write about their favorite activity on a hot summer day.Kids activities

Their responses were telling! From biking around the neighborhood -uphill and against the wind, swimming in the pool, going to the beach, fishing, hanging out with friends at a mall, playing indoor and outdoor with friends [jump rope, monopoly, twister], playing video games, sword fighting, yoga and meditation, fitness exercise, taking a walk outdoors, playing basketball or football, going to the field park or waterpark, to season passes to theme parks.

Even without looking at the name, reading through the assignment already gives me plenty of information to ‘profile’, who is: middle class, black, sociable, soulful, outdoor lover, friendly, loner, athletic and fitness lover or family-oriented. Who is on ‘groupon’, who spends summers at the beach, and who likes ninjas.

As an education, this information is not used to negatively ‘profile’ or characterize students. It helps in understanding the different interests, aspirations and preoccupations of your students. It also provides additional information for the support the proper education and development of students, their dreams and aspiration through schooling.

In many ways, I realized that I could place students in the classroom into appropriate skill circles by reviewing their activities and interests outside the classroom. Read together with other assignments of the day, I learned a lot about who is active, playful, enjoys own time or loves the outdoors or indoors. All these translate into their place within the classroom.

Who is enthusiastic to respond to questions in class, who would rather keep quiet until called upon by the teacher, who stutters, and who would rather not respond at all, even when called upon.

The other assignment was on sentence construction using both “prefix” and “suffix”provided. The sentences were hilarious and telling of everyone, as most students placed themselves into their sentences.

One in particular was telling. The “prefix” sentences and short and ‘commandeering’: “Pre-sent it!”De-send!” Onto the suffix sentences: “Did you walk slow-ly?” “Do your parents treat you safe-ly?” All sentences were questions, either cautionary or probing questions. I thought, “This one will make a police officer!”

As I gain more exposure and experience teaching in the K-12, I am looking our for those features and cues that would allow me provide a memorable teaching and learning experience with my students and in my classrooms. After all, teachers learn a lot from their pupils, to help them improve and grow in their teaching and meeting the needs of their entire classrooms.

Schooling under Wartime, and Explaining that to my American-born child

He asked me, “Did you go to school in war?”
“Yes, until when it was no longer a wise decision to go outside the house,” I told him.
I grew up in Kampala, Uganda during the war that ushered in the current president and national government. [Please believe it; some presidents stay on for over 29 years!]
I told my son that,
“Similar to our routine, my mom loved reading to me. One day, while we were reading outside our house, two soldiers walked into our yard about six-thirty o’clock in the evening. Just as my mom was about to run away, one of the soldiers told her, “Do not run, there are several more following right behind us.” Indeed, seven more followed and casually entered our house. They took about everything we owned, including plates, curtains, blankets, beddings, kitchenware and clothing. Once they were done, they asked my mother to walk them to the neighbor’s house and ask the neighbors to open their house; to get robbed too!”
 
Visibly overwhelmed, my son asked, “Wow! Weren’t you scared?”
 
I told him that I was scared, we were all scared. But life went on. In fact we went to school the next day.
He asked again, “How did you survive? You are here!?”
I told him that we went to school until it became extremely unsafe to continue, or keep living in our hometown. I explained to him that the soldiers did not always roam our neighborhood during the day. Either because they were sleeping off the exhaustion from robbing people’s homes at night or they were out terrorizing other neighborhoods or mounting roadblocks to hijack motorists and passengers.
He was visibly shocked and scared! More so, when I told him that soldiers killed and robbed people!
     “I thought, soldiers are nice?” he said.
     “Well, the current soldiers [in Uganda] are quite different,” I told him. “They are more disciplined.”
He asked me, “What does disciplined mean?”
     “To behave well. They behave better than ones we had growing up [in Uganda],” I answered.
  “You know the soldiers were terrible! They walked into people’s homes, stole property and often shot people to death. They shot and killed people on the streets for no specific reason.”
When I was little and living under war, we could not even turn on the lights or put drapes in our house at night because we did not want the soldiers to know there were people living in the house. Most of our neighbors had abandoned their homes and moved out of the country. We ate dinner using kerosene lamps [showed him a google picture of today, the typical kerosene lamp used in plenty of Africa], sitting in the corridor, where it was hard to see the light or movements inside the house. Immediately after dinner, we went to bed. In fact I slept under the bed all the time, out of fear that soldiers would see me on the bed. Most of my family lay on the floor at night.”
              “Wow mom! That is scary! And you are still alive? You are here!
Yes, it was a terrible experience, and to anyone else reading this! Amazed, as well, how we survived through it and lived to tell our story! For us, it was “business as usual”: We went to school everyday, returned home alive, cooked and dinner and fell asleep. In fact, my brother and I walked to school, not far from home. Since I was still in elementary school, I always got back home earlier than everybody else. Then, I would climb up and sit in the tree in our yard, waiting for my mother and older siblings to return home. Interestingly, my family and I were oblivious to the possibility that anybody passer-by, could easily see me up in the tree and try to harm me. Or that the soldiers could shoot me down!
Until that near fatal morning, when soldiers went door-to-door looking for rebel fighters, and killing and raping everybody they came across. In a rush and intense fear, we forgot to lock the door leading outside, when the soldiers approached. By a strike of luck, we survived when a soldier called his friend, who was about to open our door, to a proceed to an open house in sight! Thereafter, my family decided it was too risky staying in my hometown, so we joined the trail of ‘refugees’ fleeing their homes in war-torn Uganda. One of our neighbors was not lucky to escape, fatally shot, as he was rushing to the latrine to relieve himself of diarrhea.
I can go on about growing up and schooling in war time. Even that incident, walking home from school against the advice of the school principal, two days before the current government took over, as soldiers of the old regime were retreating from the main capital. When I got home and knocked at the door, my mother thought it was the solders; she opened the door wailing. She told me that one of our neighbors was raped by a soldier.
N’way, this story was for my six-year old American child, to let him realize that, playing guns, bombs and making people dead is not fun! It is not funny fantasy, as his play circles and Growing Up American, seems to make him believe. I am glad he is able to reach deep inside and get shocked. I am glad he has proposed on his own, to avoid guns and shooting games. Instead, he will build houses, hotels and more fun meaningful stuff in Minecraft. And at “S”’ party this weekend, he is not going to play, “making people dead”; he will play something else, so he said. Hopefully, he can pass on this education about the deadly not toy weapon to his friends and future generations.

When “Study Hard and You will Do Good is not enough, and Why the Need for Role Models

illustration source: NYT, "A Formula for Happiness”,   December 14, 2013 (Arthur C. Brooks)

illustration source: NYT, “A Formula for Happiness”, December 14, 2013 (Arthur C. Brooks)

Very often we hear these ‘words of the wise’: “Study hard and you will do good in life.”

But is it just cliché? After all, not all of us turn out the way we expect or proportional to the zeal and enthusiasm we put into our education. We have heard stories of the most intelligent and highly achieving academics turning to self-destruction, sometimes with fatal ending.

My father’s brother, a man with high intelligence and academic standing, received scholarships to the most prestigious world universities, earning a Bachelor’s Degree from University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Upon return to Uganda, he failed to ‘find himself’ amidst friends he left behind. Plenty with less of the education him were doing extremely well in life, with thriving families and children. Meanwhile, the wife he left behind had married another man, whom she brought into their marital home, forcing my uncle to find a one-bedroom rental somewhere in the city. With a failed marriage, and social reintegration, his sorrows sent him into alcohol to seek consolation when he was not teaching. Moreover, he often showed up to teach drunk, until that fateful day when he was fatally hit by a speeding motorist while crossing the road drunk. Similar story about my friend’s dad! Highly education, as well, with degrees from prestigious western universities, but he too succumbed to HIV/AIDS, after miserably failing to reintegrate, a broken heart and womanizing.

Yet the most high-profile case is one about our 44th President’s father. Educated at the University of Hawaii via a prestigious African American Scholarship to very promising and outstanding students from his country, and at Harvard University in Massachusetts. He later return to his Kenya and worked as a senior government economist. But frustration with his country’s national politics and drinking destroyed his professional career, driving him into a motor accidents that later claimed his life.

So, how long can we keep telling our children and learners that studying hard will yield bright futures for them? Is the glass half full, with some unfinished business that we need to add to the conversation? How well do we know the intrinsic struggles of our highly intelligent and academic superachiever personalities do we know? I suggest that perhaps, we should add the value of role models, as an additional ingredient to enrich their education experience and post-graduation success for our learners/schoolers.

It is not enough to strive for an elite education, good grades and six figure job with a highly-rated professional institution. True some people succeed in following the ‘perfect logical route’: Go to the best elementary schools; enroll in after-school programs, reinforcement classes or prep school; graduate valedictorian from high school or close to the top of their class; score high on SATs; get into the best colleges; land prestigious summer internships between study and summer abroad escapades; graduate from college and scoop job placements among the best of corporate and nonprofit America; and earn six figure salaries.

Still, their success does not come from individual effort per se, nor is it always the ultimate indicator of happiness. After all, “Happiness Research” reminds us that “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, does not imply bondage in unfulfilling, underachieving and hyper-exhausting six-figure jobs. Instead, happiness correlates greatly with achievement, the thrill of creativity and discovery, and the reward and comfort from pursuing own goals and initiatives. Happiness Research also point to the role family, faith and community contribute.

Many high career achievers are guided by the successes, expectations, visions, actions and profiles of their role models, often families, guardians, friends or community, whom they seek to emulate and please. Little wonder that children of doctors often grow up to pursue medicine, children of lawyers go to law school, architects breed architects, actors make actors, models, professors, and humanitarians. Not that some apples do not end up falling far from the tree, but plenty of good/successful apples fall close to the tree.

Like anything else, there are exceptions, such as children from homeless shelters, foster homes, farmworkers and first generation college-bound, making it to Harvard. Yet, their journey is not always the same as those with parental/community role models as doctors. Their role model might be their working class parent who have never set foot into an elite classroom or attained a college degree, who struggled to beg for a $1 on the streets to buy a burger meal every night or their farm worker parent or factory production or mining dad who worked unorthodox hours just to meet ends half-way.

So, what happens when they make it to Harvard but fail to ‘fit-in’ because the new environment is far from relatable to them? Or because they cannot find anybody from their background, anyone with shared life trajectory? Or, when their new elite circles have no room for the Association of kids who grew up in a homeless shelter or the Association of kids from the projects or The weird kids alliance? The office of student career services has no support for their type, and the African Students Group is not “Africanist enough?

The feeling of being an ‘outsider’ in one’s geographical spaces, contesting and re-creating ’normality’, resisting silence, has the potential of causing career apathy. Even an upbeat scholar may sometimes doubt the value and relevance of their career pursuits, increasingly feeling no satisfaction from the ‘mainstream’ line of engagement. Resultantly, a migration of career pursuits might happen, dictated partly by disappointment from not achieving one’s career target, while all along ignoring opportunities presented but not of one’s liking. In a twist, taking on anything to offset one’s responsibilities and obligations that come with pursuing an expensive education without own or family resources to buy it.

Ultimately, the lack of strong professional and personal support, and absence of satisfactory advice and mentorship, often hinders one’s ability to stay upbeat and invested in activities that do not offer happiness. Including, among well-mentored children,with ‘shinning’ role models to look up to but perhaps not ’strategically aligned’ to their interests. Now that I am a parent, I worry if all my effort teaching, educating, engaging with, my son, and engaging him in activities to hopefully advance his learning and social interaction will not mean a thing in his future! Not because there is no value in shaping our children’s destiny, but perhaps once again, it is not so much about working so hard and obtaining good grades, but working strategically.