Neither one of my parents graduated from high school. My father struggled academically and was lured out of school with the prospect of working and earning money.
Why finish school if I can start to work today?
My mother fell head over heels for him, his fast car and his good looks. She got pregnant on her 18th birthday and they were married months later and teenage parents shortly after that.
It was the 1960s and my parents were not the only teenage parents. But if you think this was a sign of the times, do know that despite plummeting rates, pregnancy and birth rates for teens ages 15-to-19 in the U.S. remain among the highest of industrialized nations. Roughly 1-in-4 girls will be pregnant at least once before age 20.*
We lived in a third story walk-up apartment in Woonsocket. There was plenty of love but not much else. Within eight years we grew to a family of six. My father worked as a janitor, my mother a stay-at-home mom.
Children born to teen parents are more likely to have lower school achievement, enter the child welfare and correctional systems, drop-out of high school and become teen parents themselves, compared to children born to older parents.
My father was a hard worker and even with his limited education, he worked his way from janitor to plant manager at the same mill. There was a time when it looked like we were going to be that success story ‘from humble beginnings to a comfortable life.’
Things got tougher when my parents divorced. We found ourselves on public assistance and my sisters and I were on our way to repeating the cycle of poverty. Though two of my sisters became teenage parents themselves, all four of us found our paths out of poverty but I would not say that school was the answer to our problems.
I went to a suburban high school and by that time I did not need anyone to teach me to have grit or to work hard. I had worked since I was 12 years old and like many of today’s students, I had grit to spare. I needed an adult at school who knew where I was coming from, to recognize that just because I was being educated in an affluent town my circumstances had not changed. I needed a guidance counselor to show me how to apply to college since I did not know anyone who had been to college. I needed the cheerleading coach to understand I was not late for practices because I did not care, but because I had to walk across town to get there. I needed someone to understand that there was more to me than the compliant student they saw in class each day. I needed someone to see me.
We made it.
My mother showed grit and perseverance throughout her life and through our most difficult times. She was overly protective, as you can imagine, and led our family fiercely. She had great faith and instilled that faith into all aspects of our lives. My sisters took different paths to their current successful lives, all showing attributes of the habits of success. They worked hard, were not afraid to ask for help, stayed focused, shifted their work but never their expectations for themselves and their families. I can say I did all of those things too, but my greatest path to success came through my own grit and determination and an opportunity to seek post-secondary education. I was the first woman in my immediate family to graduate from high school and the first in my extended family to go to college. I stumbled, and quit college after my sophomore year. I too was lured by work and income. I persevered, returned to school and earned three degrees in the last few decades.
My past has helped to create my present.
Education in America has long been touted as the equalizer, offered freely to the public. Education should put all students on equal footing for a successful and prosperous future. That is an idealistic thought, but without true equal access to high-quality curriculum and teachers, it is nothing but a well-crafted fallacy. In addition to equal access, our students’ culture, background, history, and present living situations need to be acknowledged and addressed. We need to educate the whole child. We need to see and know the children in our schools.
Since leaving the classroom I have dedicated my life to supporting educators as they shift the practices of teaching and learning. True education reform--real lasting change in our schools--will result in an equal playing field for all children. Change is hard. Asking teachers to reimagine the power of our profession without support is an exercise in futility. If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes an army of supporters to shift the paradigm of teaching and learning in our schools- across the state, region, and country. Each child in our classrooms presents us with an opportunity to touch the future, to make a difference and to shape that child’s present and future. We can do better.
Please take a moment to explore the work we are doing at NE Basecamp to reimagine teaching and learning with high-quality support, training and personalized professional learning. Together we can be the lever for change that helps all children find the skills they need to be successful in and outside of our classrooms.