Bridging the gap


In Tasmania we have a large percentage of families who are unemployed, and have been for several generations. At a recent meeting we were discussing how to re-engage families with education and then to help them feel motivated to encourage their children out of the unemployment/poverty cycle. How to bridge the gap between student achievement from different walks of life.Most of us have worked in a low socio-economic area during our careers so we all had opinions, anecdotal experience or research to fuel our conversation.

We moved then to discuss how parental expectation has a crucial bearing on student achievement and life success. I shared one of my favourite stories;my daughter was participating in a survey on the ‘phone. The surveyor asked her “When did you know you wanted to go to uni?” Her response? ” I never knew  I wouldn’t” .

This demonstrated to me the unspoken expectations that emanated throughout our children’s formative years, likely all their years.We never ever told them they had to go to uni, would have been perfectly happy with any career they chose to follow but I suspect all our words and actions would have conveyed that we expected them to be positive contributors to society, not just consumers. And we assumed they would be their very best. We loved them and told them they could be whatever they wanted to be. We showed them that hard work brought great rewards, both financially and philanthropically. Work hard, make positive contributions and you will be happy.

In middle class families there is usually the assumption that each generation will do slightly better than their parents- my mum was a stay at home mum, and book keeper for dad’s building business, mum’s mum stayed at home too and her dad worked at a jam factory, dad’s mum stayed at home  (my dad was one of eleven!)and his dad was a fisherman. Now there’s Ade and I, a bricklayer turned project manager and a school principal, our daughter is a doctor and our son is a comedian/actor by night and a very hard working teacher assistant by day.

This begs the question has each generation of my family outdone it’s forbearers? And how do you measure progress in this area? Is it all about the income? If so is a career criminal a success?

What about the happiness of each family? Did we really show our children that our jobs brought us great happiness? definitely on some days, but definitely not on others

What about stress levels? Their self esteem? The attention they could give their children? How loved did these kids feel ?

And so today while thinking back to the conversation about generational unemployment and poverty and what ‘we’ should do about that, my musings have lead me to ask the question -” Is it ok to put our middle-class values and expectations on others just to reduce their drain on government funds, our taxes?” One of my colleagues said that many of the families he works with currently don’t want their children to ‘do better than them’ and they don’t want them to leave the community they have been ensconced in across generations. They don’t want the apple to fall far from the tree, they don’t want to lose their strong, connected and often blended families. They don’t want their children operating in a world of time cards, pay checks, deadlines, and making new connections in that world that would be as foreign to their families as outer space.

So I guess I’m left thinking that my job as an educator is to provide opportunities in an equitable way that ensures all students can achieve their full potential- but I’m not sure it’s my job to define what that potential is. Should we stop and ask them if they actually want to cross a different bridge to the one they know will take them to where they feel safe, happy, confident and connected rather than just assuming everyone wants to be like us?