Friday, June 24, 2011

Thoughts on West Coast Education

[Ucluelet Secondary School, 2011 Grad Class]

I have been thinking about education on the west coast for 13 years. Thirteen years ago, Daughter A entered elementary school in Tofino. Today is her last day of public school.

Before I start, I want to make it clear these are my thoughts about what has worked for my family. I realize that what works for one child may not work for another (and since I still have a child in “the system” this is still the case for our family). My words are not to pass judgment on others and their decisions, but I do hope they get people thinking and talking. And I hope you’ll leave your thoughts and experiences, too.

When I talk about education with people, these have been my refrains:

Life is not perfect. In my opinion, one of the best things we can do for our children is to help them be resilient. Give them the tools to deal with less-than-perfect situations and people. That comes from experience. Was every last one of your teachers “perfect” (whatever that means)? I’d suggest the answer is no. Was every course you ever took the best it could be with the most incredible resources and instructors? I doubt that too. This doesn’t mean we should just acquiesce and not ask for better, but telling your children that school can be as good as they make it has some merit. Don’t wait for things to happen. Help make them happen.

Educate yourself. If you are going to say how "bad" the school system is on the west coast, please make sure you’ve talked to someone with a child who actually goes to the school. I’m sure peoples’ eyes must glaze over when I start ranting about this, but I find it irritating and, frankly disrespectful to those who are teachers out here, to just brush our schools off without our own experiences. “Oh, I’ve heard [insert school here] is such a bad school.” Really? And please keep in mind that teachers and administrators change all the time. The high school my daughter entered five years ago, bears little resemblance to the one she just graduated from. In the end, the school may not be the right fit for your child, but at least gather your own experiences.

Learning doesn’t happen Monday to Friday, September to June. Make learning a respected and on-going, life-long goal and your children will be fine. (I will never in my life forget the time I was talking to a group of children at the Bamfield Marine Station where I worked for a time. We were probably doing something “boring,” like, uh, leaning over a salt water tank learning about sea stars and sea cucumbers, while actually being able to handle them. One child looked at me and said with a big sigh and a bored look, “Are we learning now?” Good lord.)

Don’t give schools all the credit for educating your child. Perhaps this sounds a bit counter to what I’m going on about, but, with all due respect to our teachers, what happens within the confines of the school is not the be-all and end-all. Give your children opportunities — and goodness knows there are plenty of them out here — and they will have a rich and varied education. I am constantly reminding my kids that while they live in a small town, they don’t live in a small town. Consider all of the music, theatre, literary events, guest speakers, outdoor opportunities, recreational opportunities (surfing, flamenco, synchronized swimming, ballet, marital arts, and more), culinary experiences, and incredible natural “amenities” that people from around the world come to see and I think you’ll agree we are far from educationally impoverished. You just need to take advantage of what is before you. (Yes, we don’t have many organized team sports, which I realize is a big one — I played organized sports during all of public school and I know how valuable they can be — and some courses (and instructors) come and go, but there is a lot going on here.) Maybe we should look at what we have, not what we don’t have.

Consider that you are a role model. If you think education on the west coast sucks or that a teacher is “bad” and not doing what you think they should be, then please don’t talk about it in front of your children. If you say something sucks, children may very well begin to think it sucks, too, and will act accordingly.

You can make up your list of what is less-than-perfect about west coast schooling, but here are a few of the things I think we should celebrate.

Family. There are a lot of things to say about this. For us, it was important to keep our family together. We could have sent our daughter away for high school, but chose not to. She’ll be gone soon enough, so we decided to try it out even though most of her friends from elementary school had moved. It worked out just fine. And what I just noticed at the high school grad these kids are, in many ways, like a big messy family. Some of them have been together for 13 years — most of their lives in fact — and there’s something to be said about that. My graduating class had almost 500 people. I hardly knew a soul. And from what I gather from Daughter A, the teachers and staff become part of that family, too. I mean, how many long, philosophical discussions did you have with your school custodian?

Opportunity. Through school, my daughter has travelled to Japan, Mexico, and Quebec, as well as several field trips within British Columbia. (Next year's Global Education class is going to China.) She has also earned her assistant kayak day guide certification and ended her grade 11 year by kayaking through the Broken Group Island. At the school awards night the other evening, I saw some pretty incredible furniture and art as well.

Education. There were six students in my daughter’s Physics 12 class. Need I say more? For students wanting and needing academic courses, the numbers can be in their favour. I was also pleased at how the school tries to make as many opportunities available for students, for instance looking at Grade 11 and 12 students as a unit so that when you are in Grade 11 you may be able to take a Grade 12 course that can only be offered every other year. I know, I know, there are many courses that are not offered, but the students have access to dozens of correspondence courses as well (Daughter A took photography, French 12 and Comparative History by correspondence. I realize correspondence is not for everyone, but it’s possible.)

Community. Teachers are our neighbours and part of the community too. There’s something to be said about seeing your teachers out in your community doing what they do. Yes, teachers are people too! This extension of family really struck me when a local teacher lost his wife in an accident. There were many of his young students at the funeral, giving him a hug, showing their love and support as best they could. At the recent graduation ceremony, it seemed like the entire community was out to celebrate, even those without someone close graduating that day. The community celebrated together. (And I was also struck that several of my daughter's teachers from elementary school came up and gave her a hug, a card, a gift, and even something she had written in grade two. That was very cool.)

And the greater community supports our schools too — in a big way. At the graduation ceremony a few weeks ago, $98,000 in scholarships were awarded to our grads. (This was for a grad class of about 30 students. You do the math.) Apparently that is the largest scholarships per capita in the entire province. One scholarship is worth $40,000.

So, these are my thoughts. (For now, no doubt I have more.) What are yours?


  1. Adrienne,I agree with many of your comments. I think children do well when they are part of a multi-age community, rather than simply stuck in the confines of institutionalized peer groups. I notice "community" kids instantly when I see them looking out for the younger ones, or engaging in unselfconscious conversations with adults.

    I was so cross when I read somewhere recently that some people consider it "abusive" to raise your kids outside of a city environment. From what I've learned about the benefits of green spaces on academic results and personality, I think our kids have got it made.

    Going to school here doesn't mean our kids have to live here forever.
    But it means that they develop a stronger sense of their collective rights and responsibilities as members of society.

    That said, I know students who needed to leave town to recreate themselves elsewhere, to escape the pressure of being pigeonholed as a certain "type" of person. In some cases,even a year away was enough to make the change. The important thing is that they recognized when a less-than-perfect situation, could not be solved within the community. I would always support this kind of problem solving.

    But as a parent, volunteering in my daughter's classroom is the most rewarding experience for me. I watch her classmates grow and change, see their strengths, their struggles, their passions.

    Parents can't be everything for their kids. Neither can schools. I probably won't have the skills to coach my daughter at advanced maths or physics (if she needs it), but I'll be willing to sit with her and learn. Or trade coaching with other parents. As you say, "learn to make the most of less than perfect situations."

    Like the wildflowers that you find growing from a crack in a rock, if imbued with the right attitude to life, kids will thrive. It's this kind of attitude that has to be modelled, can't be parroted.

    Joanna Streetly

  2. Thanks, Joanna. Re.:

    "... I know students who needed to leave town to recreate themselves elsewhere, to escape the pressure of being pigeonholed as a certain "type" of person. In some cases,even a year away was enough to make the change. The important thing is that they recognized when a less-than-perfect situation, could not be solved within the community. I would always support this kind of problem solving."

    Oh, yes, I totally agree. A small town is a small town and for some children it does not give them the room they need away from constraints (whatever they may be) and things that confine (and perhaps define) them. I have also heard of some really wonderful of examples of how this was very necessary for some youth.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Wonderful post! Kids from our little town of Canmore go to Bamfield - for many it is the highlight of their HS careers. The point about resiliency is well made and I completely agree. The secret is, as you say, not to confuse this ability to cope with giving in but to continue working for change for the better.

  4. Amen Adrienne!!!

    A cogent and beautiful argument in favour of making our place even better

    Bravo again for this