“When you grow up, you can be whatever you want to be.” These words have been spoken by countless friends, educators, and family members to students the world over.  I was fortunate to grow up in an environment where high achievement was expected from me and I not only heard this adage, but also truly believed it. When I chose to join the Teach For America corps in Greater Nashville, I hoped that I would be able to share this message with my students.

When I arrived in rural Ashland City, I was overjoyed to learn I would be sharing this message with 174 students.  As a first-year teacher, I walked into my classroom bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with the idea that I would be able to stir something in my students, all of whom were seniors. I started the year giving speeches about ‘shoot for the stars’ and ‘if you can dream it, you can be it,’ but quickly found my message wasn’t resonating. The words I delivered were nothing new to them. They had heard similar things for years.

I realized the achievement gap was far more complex than I ever imagined.  Nearly all of my students wanted to go to college or attend a trade school, and most of them had big goals such as one day holding a medical degree or owning their own business. If dreaming big was not the problem, then what was? Why were so many students dropping out of school or not pursuing higher education? As the year continued, college rejection letters began to arrive for some of my students, and they asked if I could help explain what had gone wrong. Through their despair, I learned there was no shortage of desire among my students to dream; but instead, there was a lack of understanding of what it took to achieve such dreams.

While my students had been inspired to ‘dream big,’ they did not have an understanding of what steps to take toward achieving their goals. By telling students they should want to go to college, but not helping them see the relevance of taking electives or Advanced Placement courses and the importance of performing well on the ACT, we run the risk of setting up many students for a string of rejection letters come senior year. I realized that making our class theme “college” will not get students any closer to acceptance at a university than a theme of “professional sports” will get them to the NBA or NFL. To make higher education a possibility for our children, I must ground them in setting a high academic bar for a competitive edge toward college acceptance.

As I prepare for the coming school year I am going to remove the “inspirational speeches” from my classroom plans. Instead, I am going to talk about the ACT and offer out-of-school tutoring. I am going to talk about college entrance requirements and plan semester goals to reach them. I am going to help my students find scholarships to make higher education not just a dream, but also a reality. By changing the focus of my class from general “college” to “the steps needed to get to college and beyond,” I believe I will see more students pursuing post-secondary education and increasing their opportunities to grow to be whatever they dream.