Janusz Maciuba teaches English as a Second Language at a technical college in the Atlanta area. He has written several pieces for the AJC. Here is his latest:
By Janusz Maciuba
In the service of instilling self-esteem in students, teachers and other cheerleaders of scholastic and personal achievement have promoted slogans that are potentially dangerous if taken at face value by students. In fact, some of these motivational mottoes can actually encourage students to drop out of school. I base my observations on teaching 7th and 9th graders and from reading thousands of GED essays, some of which explained why students left school before graduation and what their dreams for the future were.
Here are the top three lies some students believe:
You can be anything you want to be. Yes, you can! With hard work at school or on the practice field or in the orchestra, mixed with talent and luck, the right blend of genes, and teachers and parents who really take an interest in your rise to success, you can be on your way to that happy life.
But, if you can’t spell pediatrician, it’s very unlikely you’ll be one. If you’re 14, short and weigh 90 pounds, the chances of playing for the pros are slim.
My 9th graders really believed in this dream. One day there’s a knock on the door and in a deus ex machina moment the student is plucked from real life and offered a music contract or a chance at professional sports. Generally, the worst students had the biggest dreams. Why study when desire trumps education?
A better and truer motivational message would be the old Army slogan: Be all that you can be. This is much more realistic and directs the student to exploit and capitalize on his natural talents and interests. It tells the student to find a realistic goal and work hard to get there. If he really wants to be a rapper, then he needs to: learn poetry in English class, play an instrument, join the choir, take math so all the big money doesn’t get siphoned off by managers and the inevitable posse, and become a well-rounded person who can control his life and destiny.
Students still believe that almost all the famous rappers came from the streets, when most had a middle-class upbringing. Tupac Shakur, for one, became a gansta later in life and perhaps never had the survival instincts that might have prevented his death.
The next slogan can’t be blamed on teachers but I’m not so sure about football coaches — Never back down. This philosophy shows a lack of critical reasoning and seems to come from a sense of honor learned in video games and movies. This can be a noble gesture at Little Round Top or when facing the Persian army at Thermopylae but, when it comes to school rules, jobs, or life, it is disastrous because the student will expelled, unemployable, and incarcerated. Like Kenny Rogers sings in “The Gambler”: “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.”
The last slogan is: Be a leader not a follower. Yes, break out the black flag of anarchy as all the students set up their own republics. There are times, in real life, to be a leader and other times to be a follower. Knowing the difference is the key.
Everybody engages in some magical thinking — I’m hoping some literary elves finish my novel one night – but it’s usually harmless. The danger is when unrealistic dreams and an inflated sense of character hinder educational progress.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog
So, all you motivators think of the consequences of these slogans and explain the pitfalls of taking them at face value. Or, don’t say anything at all.