The kid in the front row is definitely the know-it-all in our class. The teacher keeps picking on him when the rest of us go blank after he asks a question. And thank goodness for the girl in the back row who makes my inability to answer many questions look not so bad. Every time the teacher asks her a question she says: “I wasn’t really paying attention.” Man, I can’t wait until this class is over.”
No, this isn’t an excerpt from my teen diary. This is actually what was going on in my head Saturday when I sat in a classroom for a course I’m taking to prepare for a graduate school exam. My plan is to go to graduate school, but it’s just a plan at this point, one that’s getting shakier and shakier the more I realize how much I hate being back in school.
Career writers spew out advice every day, especially in this crummy job market, but too often we don’t really know the details, the nuances, or the hell of that advice. It’s not until we end up on that advice horse ourselves that we realize how difficult it is to steer, or to even stay on the damn thing.
Whether I end up going to graduate school, or even finishing this preparatory course, won’t matter in the end, because at least I can bore you guys with the story of Reeducating CareerDiva. And hopefully, I can enlighten you all a bit on what to expect and how to succeed if you ever decide to get more education in order to enter a new field or just enhance your knowledge for an old one.
That’s why I reached out to a couple of shrinks to get some words of wisdom on why going back to school is so hard for us adults? What happens to us in the years after we graduate from high school or college? Do our brains atrophy when it comes to learning in a classroom setting? Why are my palms sweating? I don’t have a crush on the quiet kid with the “Starsky & Hutch” lunch box anymore.
“Returning to school after years of life experience can be a blow to one’s confidence and self-esteem – this is pretty common,” said Debbie Grove, a Registered Provisional Psychologist with the College of Alberta Psychologists.
“First,” she continued, “for many who have been in the workforce for years prior to heading back into a classroom, the learning has been, for the most part, hands on, experiential, and geared to a specific job task. Often, not always, adult learners face having to return to or begin other forms of learning, e.g., critical thinking, learning and applying theories and models, writing papers that are not reports but more academically oriented. For some of the clients I have worked with over the years, it was especially challenging as they had to learn, e.g., math skills that they did not achieve during high school.” (Oh yeah, I hate the logic games!)
She blames the education system, partly:
“Most post-secondary as well as on-line learning environments, do not have supports for mature students. Even a support group of mature students to converse and share about their experiences of returning to school I think would be helpful. Sometimes the age gap can equate to differences in generational thinking, relating, and learning. Not always do younger students actively listen/or are interested in hearing about the life experiences of those co-students who are older. In some cases, though, there are some students keen to learn from others and perceive their older colleagues as mentors. However, group discussions can be valuable way to contribute, boost self-esteem, and contribute – the notion I write about is generativity – the idea of giving back to a younger generation!”
And we’re under pressure. But you knew that.
“Midlife learners generally have multiple responsibilities and stressors that can detract from focus/concentration in and out of the classroom. They can experience fatigue and decreases in stamina and resilience. This is why it is particularly important to maintain health, self-care, including sleep, diet, and exercise. Having social supports is also very important – surrounding one’s self with those who get it support it, and provide a reality check, e.g. “It won’t be easy” – and it isn’t! It’s challenging, so, facing and accepting that can be quite liberating. It can often take more time to absorb, understand, and apply the information being taught. It is typically quite useful to learn / re-learn study habits, strategies, and the type of learner you are. Learning to learn is very important. It’s sort of like warming up a car engine that has been in the garage all winter. We do have to warm up the brain, get it into study mode, and stick with it – e.g., develop a study plan/routine/timetable. The good thing about brain plasticity is that we can re-program our brains to behave differently, but this takes consistency, practice, and strategies.”
Maybe we’re losing faith in ourselves as we age, suggested Heidi Grant Halvorson, a motivational psychologist and author of “Succeed: How We Reach Our Goals.”
“From a motivational perspective, I think a big part of the problem is that as we get older, we start believing (often unconsciously) that we have lost our ability to master new knowledge and skills,” Halvorson said. “We think that 42 year old brains are somehow less capable of absorbing new learning than 22 year old brains, and this is one those times when our intuitions are completely wrong. You are just as capable of learning and growth in middle age as you are in your youth. What has changed is your mindset - the way you approach your goals. In large part this happens because of the pressures of adulthood (family, career, etc.) Most of us start thinking of the goals we pursue in terms of proving our abilities and worth, rather than developing our abilities. When we are younger, we feel that our possibilities are endless, but as we age, it seems more like our responsibilities are endless. This focus on proving ourselves, and meeting our obligations, makes us afraid to try new things and doubt our potential to master them.”
So what to do? Halvorson suggested that:
“The key is to really embrace the belief that your aren’t any less capable of mastering new learning as you age, not because it “feels good” but because it is actually true. Once you reject your wrong-headed notions about how limited your abilities are, it’s like seeing the world through a totally different lens - the one you looked through when you were younger. The only obstacle to growth is self-doubt, and there honestly isn’t any good reason for it. Adults returning to school would be well served by trying to see what they are doing in terms of making progress - of getting better - rather than worrying about proving themselves and doing everything perfectly. The latter is a bad habit that we pick up in the workplace, and it can only undermine your development and get in the way of your true potential.”
OK, I’ll try to leave my bad workplace habits at the office before I go to class tonight.