The school guidance program, a resource that is currently regarded as an afterthought by school administrators, is an underused tool that could be used to show students how they can engage productively within wider communities.
Canada wastes new citizens’ talents, not just the talents of people arriving from other countries, but the enormous talent and energy of our secondary school youth. With very few exceptions, we think of secondary school as a time for students to acquire bodies of knowledge rather than a time when they can actively begin contributing to society. Secondary school students may have more passion than know-how, but their enthusiasm makes high school a good time to start learning leadership skills to engage productively with the wider community.
An underused tool for building this bridge is the school guidance program, a resource that is currently regarded as an afterthought by school administrators, offering basic tick-the-box advice on academic requirements. Imagine if our guidance offices were staffed with civic and business leaders who understood how our communities worked. Dynamic, engaged community leaders could refresh the approach to extracurricular activities, opening students’ eyes to the world beyond the school and beyond the “bake sales for distant causes” that now pass for social engagement.
This new breed of guidance counsellor could open students’ access to civic decision-makers and entrepreneurs. They could recruit groups and individuals to visit schools and help students unlock their talents, develop their leadership potential, show them different ways to engage.
Better guidance would help students find part-time jobs or internships with local businesses or charities, where they could see firsthand how innovation and entrepreneurship can drive change. And it could push teenagers to explore the arts and be physically active. Better guidance would also help students grasp the academic nuts and bolts of their school careers. Beginning as early as Grade 9, guidance counsellors could prepare students for what lies ahead in post-secondary education, reducing the stress — and mistakes — students make as they scramble to understand and meet university program requirements. Secondary schools also need to do a better job educating their students in the economics of a university education. Students need information to measure costs against opportunities so we don’t graduate another generation with high debt and limited prospects. They need to understand the breadth of programs available to students across Canada, how financial aid programs work, and what scholarships and bursaries are available so they can make informed financial choices in education.
The closest Canadian model is Quebec’s “spiritual life and guidance community involvement animator,” a position created a decade ago when the province’s schools shifted to a secular system. These animators are expected to help students learn about themselves and what their interests are. They encourage students to volunteer and get involved, support extracurricular activities and bring ideas and speakers to the schools. Unfortunately there are only 17 for the entire province, so their impact is limited.
The success of this new guidance regime would depend on recruiting the right people for dealing with the raw material of our youth. A teaching diploma would not be required. The right person might well be a social entrepreneur who is deeply interested in youth engagement, a highly respected community leader, or a successful businessperson who wants to spend a few years giving back. The guidance office could become the best link between our youth and the broader community they will join once they leave school. It is our responsibility that they do so not just with academic skills in math and English but also with a well-developed ethic of civic responsibility. Getting our schools to professionalize and deliver better guidance would be an excellent first step.