Images by John 'K'

Life as seen through my lens…

If only children had the benefit of their own future hindsight….

My two youngest daughters moved to California with my wife last August. They’ve now been through pretty much a full school year. Back in the UK, one of them had just finished mainstream education (and would have been coming to the end of her first year in college), and the other was mid-way through her mainstream senior education. The education system in the UK, while being ahead of the US in terms of what is covered at certain ages, is very heavily focused on the results of examinations sat at the end of the education process, whereas the American system is focused much more on an ongoing assessment of progress throughout the time children are being educated.

Let’s focus on the elder of the two first….

She’s good at some stuff, not so good at others, and unfortunately personality clashes with teachers get the better of her and interfere with her performance in certain classes. She can be a fairly moody person, and tends to switch off in the face of criticism. This tends to mean that when she’s good at something, she revels in the attention and will continue to do well, but when she’s not so good at something, any criticism or attempt to point out what she did wrong (so she can do it right next time) is met with a front of negative attitude and a lack of willingness to listen and learn, and so she continues to do badly (and in some cases subsequently does worse).

When we moved here, she had a chance to either skip high-school altogether and instead jump straight into college (with an age gap between her and her peers), or she could re-enter school with 1 or 2 years of high-school to complete before going on to college with people who would be closer to her own age. This is because the UK school system is 2 years ahead of that in the US, and by assessing her UK school transcript, she had all the relevant credits to have met a high-school education. For various reasons, we ended up with her choosing to enter high-school as a senior. The net result of this being that in order for her to graduate, she now needs to complete the necessary credits for her senior year.

As is typically the case, she did well at some subjects, and not so well at others, and those where she had been doing not so well were at least in part because of the previously mentioned reasons. The net result being that her ability to graduate now hangs on a few percentage points in one subject, and what worries me is that 1) I’m not sure she has really taken on-board how important it is for her to pull out all the stops to make sure she gets the results to graduate, and 2) what impact that an ‘average’ set of grades will make on her future employability.

How she finishes high-school is going to shape her future, and graduating is key to that future. Without graduating with a high-school diploma, she’s going to find it difficult to get on the college courses she wants, and will subsequently limit her career choices.  She needs to realize that her education is still vitally important to her future, and that she can’t just ride through life on what she’s achieved in the UK. In order to succeed in the US, her US education is vital to her future, and she needs to pull out all the stops to ensure she does the best she can between now and graduation, in ALL subjects, or her graduation, and her future, hangs in the balance.

Now to the youngest one….

As she was only part way through her UK senior education, she joined the US education system as a high-school freshman with peers of the same age. In the UK, she was getting good grades, was enjoying the work, was in with a good group of kids who all seemed to work well  together, and as a result of her progress had even been placed on a ‘talented children’ watch-list from one of the local universities.

As she started in the US, things looked to be going well. She was getting good grades, was integrating well, got on the school basketball team, and all looked good. Over the course of the year however, grades in subjects where she should be doing really well started to drop. I suspect there are a number of reasons for this – some valid, some not, but she needs to realize that the system here works differently. For a start, if she wants to continue to be a member of the basketball team (which she does), she needs to keep up a good level of overall academic performance. 

We’ve seen that when she makes an effort, she can get great grades here, but we’ve also seen that when she doesn’t make an effort, she gets really bad grades. What she doesn’t seem to have taken on board is that for the times she doesn’t make an effort, her overall grade suffers badly, and as such, her ability to continue to play the sport she seems to love, and her potential to go on to a good college placement and a good career are at risk. Unlike in the UK where she could pull things back by doing well in final exams, her final grade here is dependant on how she does in assignments and projects through the year, and failure to complete these will seriously limit her future options. She needs to realize that certain things need to take priority, and that some effort and sacrifice now will save her a LOT of effort and sacrifice later.

… so, hindsight?

The reason I say all of this is that I’ve been there. I’ve gone form being a bright student getting good grades, to letting things slide at the end of my school time, and have paid the consequences. Rather than finding the right balance, I let my personal life get in the way of my education in the two years where it mattered the most, and as a result found my future options severely limited. Whereas I could have gone on to university, majored in computer science or some related area, and gone into a really good job in an emerging industry, I ended up leaving 6th form college (sort of hybrid between high-school and community college) with some pretty average grade ‘A’-level exams (sort of the equivalent of a 2 year college degree), and spent a year working in a department store before starting at a fairly low level in the emerging computer industry.

It is only thanks to timing and my ability to study hard and learn new things on the fly that I have managed to progress to where I am now, which while not a particularly bad place, could have been much better with the right start on my working life, and I’m only where I am now because I have had to work extra hard to compensate for the lack of a proper college/university education and the resultant credentials.

My two youngest daughters are both at key points in their lives and what they do now (and in the next few weeks) will shape their future in ways that they really can’t imagine. It is this thought more than anything else that causes my wife and I to react the way we do when we see signs of things going bad for them. For my elder daughter, if things are caught now, she can salvage things such that her prospects for the future can be a bit more open that they might otherwise be. For my youngest daughter, if she turns things around now and pulls herself back on track, she can still have the sort of future ahead of her that I can now only dream about.

As parents, we want the best future for our children. Unfortunately, like a lot of parents who get no training in the skills of life needed to bring up children, we’re not the best at communicating this to our children. As such, our desire to see them do the best they can often comes across as us being harsh, authoritarian, overly willing to criticize, and all in all ends up with us looking like enemy number 1 to our children. In reality though, all we want is for them to have the best opportunity they can to reach their full potential in their future lives. 

Coming from an upbringing in a country where people tend to criticize the bad rather than praise the good, nurturing the potential of our children in a land where achievements (no matter how small) are celebrated and people are encouraged for what they can do rather than discouraged because of what they can’t do is a hard change for us, and one that we haven’t mastered yet. I hope we don’t discover that skill too late for the sake of our children’s future, but at the same time, I hope that our children can realize that what we are doing is not out of spite, but is rather out of love and a desire to see our children do the best they can to have the best possible life in their future.

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