PERSONALIZED LEARNING JOURNEY
by Jeff Devens

This article was first published in Journeys Magazine, Summer 2017.

Personalized Learning Journey

Terry struggled throughout high school, barely meeting the graduation requirements. Watching him cross the stage receiving his diploma, I reflected on the numerous conversations we had with his parents and teachers throughout the year. Terry was a kid who hadn’t met all the developmental milestones indicating he was ready for adulthood, but I knew he would eventually.

Fast forward six months.


Terry showed up this past week at school. Since graduation, he’s been traveling, working, reflecting, planning, and finding himself. He needed a year off before beginning college to sort out heart issues, to figure out who he is, and to make plans for the future. During our conversation, Terry commented, “When I was in high school I knew I could do the work, but I couldn’t see the bigger picture as to why. I didn’t know who I was, what I believed, or even why I believed it. I’m still sorting this out. I guess I’m not finished growing up.” I so enjoy working with kids like Terry. They remind me that life’s trajectory isn’t a straight line. It’s filled with dips, twists, bumps, plateaus, and valleys. If kids persist, they’ll have one heck of a ride! Terry’s story is my story, maybe even yours. I grew up in a single-parent home, the only child of five to graduate from high school, attending at least 10 (I lost count after 10) different schools between kindergarten and grade 12. You bet I had gaps in learning. What I lacked in skill I made up in will, determined to learn, to graduate, to move forward. Those formative years shaped my practice and softened my heart for kids who struggle with traditional learning and life journeys. I shared Terry’s story with a friend, educator, accomplished author, and public speaker. In response, here’s what he wrote: “There’s no way I was ready for college when I was 18. I wasn’t focused enough, academically. When I eventually went to university, it was only thanks to upgrading courses at a community college. Because I was paying my way, there was no way I was going to fail. At least, that’s how I saw it. Before getting to university, the last time I had received an A on my report card was in the seventh grade. I went through grades 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 without getting a single A. My report card was littered with D grades, and at least two Fs every year. To this day, I only have grade 10 math (D grade) and an introductory Algebra 11 (another D). In contrast, college and university seemed so much easier for me. Kid who did well in my high school trailed my results in college. I graduated with distinction, which is what it said on my transcript. But I never liked school, not even college or university. Perhaps Terry and I have plenty in common.” – Andrew Hallam, author of The Millionaire Teacher and The Global Expatriates Guide to Investing.

Heart issues

So, what’s your story? I suspect quite a few readers can relate to Terry’s, Andrew’s, and mine. Looking back, school may have held few mountain top experiences. The same may be said for your child at this moment. They may be valley dwellers,attempting to make the ascent to the summit but running out of time. Sure, they’re learning, but they’re struggling with meeting predetermined deadlines (i.e., semester grades due, graduation,etc.) and this is making you nervous, very nervous. Take heart—at some point, they’ll make that ascent. And, what will they find at the top? A vista filled with mountains and valleys. 

Mountain tops, valleys, plateaus, ascents, and descents are part of life’s journey. When kids struggle academically, our focus on matters of the heart should be as thoroughly explored as academics. After 25 years in education (21 of which have been in international schools), I’m convinced the overwhelming g learning issues teens face are heart issues (i.e. worth, purpose, meaning, value). This isn’t to suggest there aren’t corresponding academic issues; there are, but matters of the heart must be addressed first, before any significant headway is made in the books. 

There are a myriad of variables affecting rates of learning including motivation, maturation, emotions, peer influences, and genetics. In Terry’s case, it wasn’t bad parenting, genetics, or negative peer influences, but it was self-pity. Coming from a divorced family, not hitting academic milestones like other kids, and grappling with self worth created the perfect recipe for wallow stew. Part of the challenge we faced was addressing his feelings, validating them, and then attempting to develop a plan he could own—but we ran out of time. We weren’t able to work through his issues in time for him to demonstrate he was a responsive and responsible adult. Our meeting was a wonderful affirmation he’d get there. There’s more to be sorted, but he’s developing the right mindset, surrounding himself with positive influences, and planning and preparing for the future, all healthy markers of adulthood.

The learning journey

All kids don’t learn at the same rate or even in the same ways. As a result, all children don’t learn at high levels (i.e. meet the standards) at the same time, depending on the metrics used. Believing all kids should is a disservice to parents, teachers, and kids. This message communicates to parents, “if my child isn’t learning at high levels, it may have something to do with how I’m parenting” (maybe); it communicates to teachers, “if all my students aren’t learning at high levels it may be because I’m not an effective teacher” (perhaps); and it communicates to a child, “if I’m not learning  at high levels it may be because there’s something wrong with me” (possibly). This has all the trappings of guilt-city. 

Instead, how about stating, “All kids can learn!” Our focus shifts from the outcome (i.e., meeting the standard, earning high marks) to the process (i.e., effort, time management, emotional regulation, good decision-making skills, etc.). This statement acknowledges that life sometimes hits kids square in the face with circumstances bigger than they can handle, resulting in limited to lackluster output until matters of the heart, head, and home are sorted out. This is part of the reason we have 18 counselors, three school psychologists, and a host of learning support experts serving in Singapore American School. This is also part of what it means to be a school community of extraordinary care. Add to this schoolwide advisory programs and our 2020 initiative focus on pastoral care, and one begins to understand how intentional SAS is in supporting all areas of kids’ lives. We are here to help.

Click here to read more articles from Journeys Magazine, Summer 2017.

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