Counsellor’s Corner: There are no shortcuts

For my entire career I have been preaching this message to my students:

There are no shortcuts, so you might as well settle in, do the work, and accept the grades you get.

It’s a logical message. Students who spend too much time looking for shortcuts and neglect their studies always have to bridge the gap that emerges as a result of their dogged pursuit of an easier way to get things done. I have had dozens (and dozens!) of students sit across from me in my office and vow to radically improve their grades after a period of inaction. The monologue usually goes something like this: “Well, sir, you see, I really slacked off in Grade 11, but I am going to get 90s in Grade 12.” You can substitute different grade levels into the equation, but the message remains the same – they believe they can just flip a switch and their genius will emerge.

I am not talking about students who, due to life circumstances, have been prevented from achieving their potential. A student who becomes ill, slips into a mental illness, suffers at the hands of an abuser or watches their parents navigate the painful terrain of a divorce can be understandably distracted from their school work. Nor am I talking about students who, despite their best efforts, struggle to post high grades even though they have a strong work ethic. I am talking about the underachiever who elects to coast for a month, a year or a number of years even though their parents and teachers encourage them to get back on track. Once these students realize that they have fallen behind, they often look for the quick fix – the shortcut – to get themselves back in the game.

My pep talk for these students is seldom received with any kind of pleasure. They don’t like to hear that their education is a progression of steps toward mastery learning. There are no substantive shortcuts that can be taken to jump to mastery. Instead, because they didn’t put enough effort/practice/time into their academics, they will need to make up the gap in learning that emerged while they were not focusing on their studies – which tends to be a frustrating endeavour. They also don’t like to hear that grades generally stay in the same range as one moves through high school. Sure, the odd student will produce a five-point bump from one year to the next but, more often, grades stay the same or drop because the content gets more difficult with each passing academic year. In my experience, as a guidance counsellor for thousands of students over the past decade, I have only seen one student make the jump from a high-60 to a mid-80 (something that required a radical shift in attitude and a change in academic focus from their weaker subjects to their stronger subjects).

I felt pretty good about my no shortcuts philosophy until very recently. Over the past few years, students have begun turning to private schoolsto get the grades they want to get into university. The private schools I am talking about are small businesses that deliver single credits to students outside of regular day school. Most of these small businesses charge between $500 and $900 per credit. As long as the course has an appropriate Ministry of Education course code, they are being entered onto the student’s transcript and, for the most part, the universities are none the wiser.

This is not an effort to vilify private schools of this ilk. Many offer credits and programs to students in need. For example, students who cannot attend school because they are ill or are taking care of a sick family member rely on these private institutions to get through high school. Some students also have to make up pre-requisite courses to move from one academic phase to the next and their only option is a private school.

Unfortunately, some private schools are straying from the mandate described above. I have seen private school report cards for students (who have been earning failing grades in day school!) that are nothing short of miraculous. I am talking about marks skyrocketing from 45 to 95. Clearly, these schools have exploited a weakness in the education system and have created a shortcut for students that relays the following message:

With a limited amount of effort (and a certain amount of cash) you can get the grades you want. This shortcut forces all education stakeholders to ask the question: What is the value of learning? The guidance counsellors I have spoken with have echoed the same refrain: The value of learning is found in approaching academics with integrity and respect for the incremental process of building knowledge, skills and, in time, wisdom. Learning requires patience and commitment. Learning is NOT about exploiting a shortcut that, through a cash transaction, gets a student a grade that is not a true reflection of their performance.

Sean Dolan taught for 20 years before moving into Guidance and Career Education six years ago. He is currently working as a high school guidance counsellor at St. Marcellinus Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario.