Sharing our story and our journey of how we got to where we are is a powerful way of connecting to each other. When we look at our resume we know which of the jobs had the greatest impact on the direction of our lives. Often it’s the first jobs that we have that have the greatest impact.
My very first job in education was at Minnick Education Center in Roanoke, Virginia. It was private day school for students who were not meeting with success in traditional public schools. The program that I worked in was alternative high school program with a small group of mostly African American young men who were at risk of dropping out of school or going into juvenile detention centers. The commonality between the group were a diagnosis of Emotionally Disturbed, disruptive behaviors, and extremely low literacy levels. There was no option for these young men to return to their home schools because of their previous behaviors, and therefore there was pressure to make sure they met with success with us so they could either graduate with an alternate diploma or earn their G.E.D.
By far, it was the hardest teaching position that I have had in my career but I was committed to those young men. I was determined for them to meet with success. Each student had a three inch binder that contained “their story” and it was shocking and heartbreaking to read. How could these young men only read on an early elementary level? How had they fallen through the school system and not have received effective interventions earlier? How had they made it this far despite the obstacles they faced? Could someone have prevented their behaviors from escalating to the point that they were expelled? What could have changed their trajectory so that learning differently didn’t mean failing school? And most importantly, how could we help set them on a path to a vocation that could become independent and productive citizens?
That first year was also my last year in that type of educational setting because it was too overwhelming for me. As a compassionate and empathetic educator the experience of working with a group of teens who were in the midst of trauma was too much for me. I remember telling my principal how I was feeling at mid-year; he nodded, asked me to finish out the year, and said this field has a high turnover rate because most educators want to fix problems that they can’t.
That first teaching position helped me realize that my strengths were in working with younger children. I wanted to be an early childhood teacher that help start children’s trajectory in a different way. I wanted to learn how to teach ALL children to read and to honor that different ways of learning could be supported in a traditional school.
Luckily near the conclusion of that school year, I was accepted into a program with the Western Virginia Public Education Consortium that was offering a ‘career switcher’ Teacher Preparation Program. The Virginia Department of Education recognized that people like me who already had a Bachelor’s degree and a fiery desire to make a difference in children’s lives needed a pathway to teacher licensure. This was a godsend because going back for an education degree was not financially possible for me at the time, and the career switcher program was fully paid for by the Virginia DOE.
For one month in July 2001, I was able to live on campus at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia and take part in an intensive training to become a provisionally licensed elementary teacher. Later that summer I was hired as a first grade teacher in a public school, was assigned a mentor teacher, and received support throughout my first year from the Consortium to ensure that I was able to effectively teach younger children. My first year in public school I began to take graduate level classes in order to become a reading specialist and was determined to ensure that every child I work with finds reading to be a joyful experience. One of my foundational beliefs is that when a child knows how to read an entire universe opens up in front of them, and that there is freedom and knowledge awaiting us all when we read.
I often think back to Minnick and the lessons I learned from that group of young men. I don’t know where life took them, but I carry with me a piece of their story. Each of those young men’s stories are important, and each of the children and adult students that I work with have important stories to share. When we share our stories, whether written or orally, we create connections and foster an environment built on respect.
I know when I look at my resume that the one year at Minnick had the greatest impact on my career. As educators, we have the power to influence the trajectory of our student’s lives when we don’t let any of them slip through the cracks. As early childhood educators, we truly set the foundation and groundwork for the rest of their academic lives so it is both and honor and responsibility that we advocate for what children need.