Context: The following conversation occurred at a rural public school in western New York, in a town with a relatively low average household income:

– “She wants to be a veterinary technician.”

– “Not a veterinarian?”

– “We have to be careful about encouraging students to pursue realistic goals.”

When a teacher and I had this conversation, I struggled to wrap my head around what he was trying to tell me. I thought to myself, “Shouldn’t we, as teachers, encourage all of our students to pursue ambitious career goals? Why would we encourage this student to become a vet tech, when she could be a veterinarian?” As the daughter of a veterinarian and the sister of a veterinary technician, I know the difference between the two careers. My inclination to encourage the student to consider a career as a veterinarian stems from a desire to push my students to dream big, rather than to “look down” at veterinary technicians. From a social justice perspective, I was initially appalled by this teacher’s’ apparent pigeon-holing of this student due to her socioeconomic status.

I pressed the teacher, asking why he wouldn’t encourage the student to consider being a veterinarian. I voiced my concerns about the implications of setting lower standards for students from poorer areas. His response surprised me. Rather than speaking disrespectfully about the student and underestimating her intelligence, this teacher explained that he was concerned about the student amassing debt and losing motivation before finishing veterinary school. After all, in New York State, undergraduates rack up an average of over $29,000 of debt by the time they graduate. 

Even in the most affluent families, the cost of college is still significant. For students from working-class families, the price of a college education can seem insurmountable. So what are students, families, and teachers supposed to do? What advice should teachers give their students in cases like the one described in this post? It seems that in situations like these, students aspiring to go to college need to be even more exceptional than their richer peers from wealthier families. All of these questions and thoughts flit through my mind as the teacher and I continued our conversation about the student’s desire to become a vet tech.

He explained that this student had failed two science classes already, and was in danger of not graduating on time. He noted that many of students like her come from families of lower socioeconomic status where school and higher education is not valued or talked about much. Coming from this type of background, he worried that this student would not have the family or cultural supports to motivate her throughout college and veterinary school, even if she did find a way to pay for higher education.

This teacher’s worries for the student and explanation for encouraging her to pursue a career as a vet tech instead of veterinarian, forced me to think critically about my blanket policy of pushing all students to dream big. Although I still believe that all teachers should support all students as they aspire to ambitious career paths, I am now disturbed by the realities this teacher voiced. 

In poorer communities populated by families working blue-collar jobs, going to college is not the only socially acceptable path for high school graduates. In many cultures, students’ parents do not push their children to pursue higher level careers or go to college. This type of culture can profoundly affect student motivation in school. As Cobb writes, “Children frequently grow up in a variety of social settings (e.g., in day care, with babysitters, in school, and among peer groups) that function together with the family and home communities to raise them” (Cobb). In this quote, Cobb reminds us, we do not teach in a vacuum, and students’ out-of-school experiences greatly affect their attitudes about school and education. 

As teachers, it is our job to see our students as whole people and respect the cultures that raise them; however, an equally important part of our job is to encourage students to be ambitious and support them to the best of our abilities as they battle socially-constructed obstacles and pursue their dreams.