As Rob McTavish walked toward the stage at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby to accept his PhD in educational psychology he couldn’t help think about the people that had put him there.
His voice begins to waver as he remembers looking out into the crowd of 1,000 people – 10 of which were PhD recipients. Rob could see his parents, his in-laws, his wife and in his mind, a few teachers who believed in him when others either gave up or didn’t understand what it was that made him different.
“My parents were there to see me finish, I wanted to show them I turned out okay, it was a real thank-you to them.”
Now married with two small children, academic trouble began early for McTavish. Having been labelled as a problem student by Grade 2, he was expelled from five elementary schools and three high schools in his 12 years in the Surrey School District.
“I was a very active kid, constantly challenging the teachers,” he said “I would question things like, ‘why is the sky blue, what makes it blue?’ Or ‘yesterday you said this, but now you’re saying something different’. ”
Often his questioning was perceived as challenging or disrespecting authority.
His grades would fluctuate from A-pluses one year to Fs the next, often in the same subject.
McTavish was an avid reader, usually reading well beyond his grade level. And though he was able to connect with certain teachers who would offer more challenging work outside the school curriculum, having a “problem student” label made for difficult teacher-student relationships.
“Not many teachers took the time to understand how I could learn, or wanted to take the time to challenge me,” he said.
Some teachers, however, saw through his “class clown” exterior.
“Ms. O’Mally at Bear Creek Elementary, she was one of the first who saw my uniqueness,” he said, adding a handful of high school teachers also recognized his potential.
Although he finished his Grade 12 year, he was two courses short for his official graduation certificate.
In 1986, following in his brother’s footsteps, McTavish joined the military.
Working weekends during the school year and summers in Alberta with the reserves, he enrolled in leadership courses and began to excel.
“In the military it’s all about respect, I felt like I was finally treated like an adult.”
By 1991, after working random labour jobs, he made the decision to go back to school and enrolled as a mature student at Kwantlen College in Surrey (now Kwantlen Polytechnic University), and after transferring to SFU, graduated with an undergraduate degree in communications in 1997.
Still feeling the need to learn more, he continued studying and obtained a master’s degree in educational psychology from SFU in 2002.
While working for CODE (Centre for Online and Distance Education) at SFU he began to see the ability he had in helping others reach their educational goals.
Focussing his graduate studies on improving outcomes for students, McTavish based his doctoral thesis on how learning objectives can help students improve their studying performance.
Last December, after making an oral defense of his doctoral work to a large professional board at SFU, McTavish was granted his doctorate degree.
But there was something missing from his educational resume.
After earlier receiving credit for one of his missing secondary school courses, McTavish approached the Surrey School District about completing Social Studies 11 – the last course he needed to be granted his high school diploma.
In early February, McTavish, 42, opened his mailbox to find a envelope containing his B.C. High School diploma, and two days later came the announcement of his PhD.
Now graduated and working as program director at CODE, his goal is to develop a workshop for struggling students, to keep them enrolled.
“I know what it’s like. I’ve been there.”