Education and expectations

By Sean Carroll | December 30, 2005 1:45 am

Lauren at Feministe talks about being a single teenage mom, getting through college, and becoming a teacher herself. You should read it.

When I was student teaching this past semester, battling my Basic students’ resistance to the educational process, I finally asked my students why some of them hadn’t opted for that alternative school from which I secretly graduated. It was a more organic layout, just a few hours a day, individual work toward short-term goals. For those who needed a more structured day, it wasn’t an option. But the rest of them. The rest of them considered it a cop-out. This surprised me. I figured that many of them would be attracted to an easy way out with the same ends as attending eight hours of high school a day. I wondered what they would think of me if I dropped the teacherly facade and was honest about my high school experience.

At one point I raised the risk level and revealed that I had been no model student in high school, that I thought many of them had what it takes to get through a four-year college, especially if I could do so. They laughed at me, accusing me of being some goody-two-shoes that had no idea about the difficulties of their lives. I didn’t tell them about the teenage pregnancy, or the criminal record, or the drugs, or the stay in juvenile hall, or the two trips to rehab, the years in AA. Sure, I don’t know the poverty, but I do know the expectations of failure. What I did say was that I was not a model student, that I had a past that was comparable to their present, and that I was within weeks of my degree. You can do it, I said. Trust me.

A while ago Mark posted about the fact that physicists come from quite diverse backgrounds, but a supportive environment is a common thread. Like Mark, I didn’t grow up in a high-powered intellectual environment, although it was basically middle-class; most of my family worked for U.S. Steel, my father was the first person in his family to get a college degree (my mother never did), and my parents divorced before I entered first grade. Graduated from a large public high school, got through college and grad school on fellowships. But I did receive support from all over, which is crucial to believing enough in yourself to ever try something as impractical as becoming a professor of theoretical physics.

My friends at Project Exploration specialize in taking underprivileged children and turning them on to learning by getting them interested in science. Roughly speaking, none of the kids who work with them would have expected to attend college, and all of them eventually do. One of the stories I’ve heard Gabe Lyon tell is the reaction of a group of inner-city kids to taking a long train ride out to Montana to dig for dinosaurs. All sorts of things to be excited about — train, dinosaurs, field trip. But here’s what they can’t get over: stars in the sky! Not something their familiar with from their everyday lives in Chicago.

Nobody pops out of the womb in possession of a complete skill set appropriate to tackling life’s challenges. A lot of kids in our country grow up in environments where looking at the stars, literally and figuratively, is not encouraged. Here’s hoping we find new ways to convince them that they can do it.

  • Plato

    This is a wonderful posting on the “possibilties” in the face of certain advercities.

    Inspiration like this acts like motivational fuel, for getting through the rough times. Tending too, feeding, and taking care of those we had brought into the world.

    Helps me recognize that we can all be quite capable, if one puts their minds and hearts into this quest for understanding, while managing those other avenues . :)

    Isn’t that right Gavin? :)

  • twaters

    Thanks for keeping this site stocked with goodies, Sean.

    “But I did receive support from all over, which is crucial to believing enough in yourself to ever try something as impractical as becoming a professor of theoretical physics.”

    Did you ever find your support running thin in the specific area of theoretical physics, considering the past giants that they would have associated you with and the “dissident” like characters that dismiss your vocation as shying away from the real world?

  • tom fish

    Great post, Sean. It’s nice to see someone from similar means enjoying so much success.

  • Dean W. Armstrong

    With regards to the wonder of the stars–it doesn’t have to be that way. Chicago streetlighting wastes 30% of the light directly into the sky, never hitting anything but birds and the bellies of airplanes. Using a fully shielded light, like those on south Lake Shore Drives, reduces energy use, reduces glare, and, in the case of these youngsters, reduces the obscene light pollution that keeps the stars from them.

  • spyder

    We will never be able to exhaust the resources necessary to provide future teachers with the skills and motivations to inspire every student to learn–especially about themselves and the world in which they live. Lauren’s efforts are so very important, and i can’t imagine that there is a single person reading this blog site who has not had a teacher in their youth who inspired a profound learning moment.

    And yet we somehow continue to assume that university Education departments are not quite as important as other areas of study that bring in the bigger dollars and “attention.” Maybe someday there will be some serious prizes for those who educate teachers.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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