With all the controversy swirling around President Obama’s Back to School Message, anyone who watched or listened to the speech must have been thinking “What’s the big deal?” In truth, there was no “big deal” at all in the speech, just a solid reminder to kids about the importance of taking their studies seriously and staying in school. Coming from the President of the United States, maybe that message will be taken a little more seriously by those kids and their parents.
He started talking of universal truths relating to going back to school: kids are nervous, some wish it were still summer, seniors everywhere are rejoicing they got this far. But he quickly changed gears and talking about things he has said before about education, including “responsibility” for everyone involved in the process: parents, teachers, and government. What was also important was the focus on the student. He said that all the responsibility in the world taken by other people won’t matter “unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.”
As an educator, I was happy to hear this. Too many times it seems people have been passing the buck. It’s everyone’s fault that schools are failing and kids are dropping out of school. Yes, all those people bear responsibility, but I welcomed hearing the President remind kids that this is their job too, that they must pull their weight in order for the process to work.
Over the years I’ve heard students talk cavalierly about what will happen after high school. They talk about getting great jobs, making lots of money, and having big houses and fancy cars. Many times this comes from students with the lowest averages who seem to have no grasp on reality. Mr. Obama apparently understands this because he went on to say, “You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.”
I loved this comment, but then he followed it up with something even stronger when he said:
And this isn’t just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.
To use an old cliché, this sounded like music to my ears, and it plays upon President Kennedy’s old but wonderful call not to ask what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country. Instead of bemoaning all the countries whose kids do better in science and math, Mr. Obama is telling them that they have a stake in this not just for their own careers but collectively, as citizens of our nation, and that they have a vested interest in making the grade and going beyond because that will secure our way of life for future generations.
Mr. Obama also addressed students who may not have the perfect life at home. As a teacher, I have heard many horror stories over the years that I don’t need to repeat here, but I often wondered how kids got their homework done or studied for a test in that kind of environment. Yet, truthfully, often those students defiantly found a way and turned in some of the best papers and scored highest on tests.
Mr. Obama gave some insight from his own life on the subject:
I get it. I know what that’s like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn’t always able to give us things the other kids had.
He let those kids identify with him, then masterfully brought it around and back to them.
He told them, “That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That’s no excuse for not trying.” This echoes what I and many other teachers have said to students one-on-one and in a class setting over the years. We educators must be thankful for him having said it, as our President and as a man who is respected by kids who will listen and hopefully follow the advice he is dispensing.
All the critics who were against this speech must have, I can only hope, thought differently after hearing it. When Mr. Obama told the students to set goals, he gave realistic examples and yet also set the bar higher. The goal could be doing homework, reading, or paying attention in class, but the bottom line is the idea of striving toward something. For many kids this is like an adult starting a diet. That person shouldn’t fast for days and get him- or herself sick, but take baby steps of cutting portions or skipping sweets. Mr. Obama let kids know that they can set goals and then, after reaching them, strive for something higher.
I think many people from both parties probably welcomed Mr. Obama’s pointing out that when students give up on themselves they give up on their country. Again moving back to the idea of something greater than the individual, Mr. Obama reminded students of something crucial about the USA. He said, “The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.” This is not only good common sense educationally speaking, but it is downright patriotic, and this quotation should be posted in classrooms around the nation.
When the President of the United States tells kids that “I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you,” I think it sets the tone for a great school year. Will kids fail this year? Inevitably. Will students drop out of school? Of course they will. I do believe, though, that Mr. Obama has set the bar high, but not too out of reach, in order that many students can believe they can achieve something more than they have in the past.
As educators often do, I like to grade performances and public speakers, so I am giving Mr. Obama an “A” for effort for this speech, especially considering all the negativity that preceded it. He spoke passionately and eloquently, and he indeed provides one of the most important things the students (and their parents) of this country need: a fine role model in the highest office of the land.
Of course, now it is all in the hands of those whom he addressed. It is also up to educators and parents to make this teachable moment into something more. We can ask questions and require written responses; we can have students set goals, post them in their classrooms or rooms at home, and get them as motivated as we can. More important, we can remind students in our classes and children in our families that it’s not just the President who expects more from them. We do too. If we give our children as much guidance, assistance, and love as we can, think of the possibilities.