Friday, March 26, 2010

Where are the Role Models?

Sometimes questions seem to pop up in several places at the same time. I had a great conversation at Portland State University about the problems that kids have after they graduate (after all the effort to help them NOT DROP OUT). My companion pointed out that (based on her personal experience as well as research) even when they make it through school, some kids find themselves unable to continue to college.

There are many reasons that kids don’t go on to college; financial reasons, or family responsibilities for example. But for some, even if they are able to attend, they don’t go on to college because they simply have no idea what they might be or do if they get there.

This topic also frequently came up in a course I developed and taught, Making Connections, Strong Relationships Help Keep Kids in School . My students (teachers and mentors) wondered how to keep the students who make it through school connected – with learning, with work, and with the desire and inspiration to continue to move forward in their lives. There was lots of conversation about how to inspire the kids who are currently in school (at every grade) with the idea that if they STAY in school – they can go on after school to do something they love, or at least, are interested in.

The one question that was common to every discussion is this - where are the role models? How can teachers and mentors connect their kids with people of every color and kind - who can demonstrate by their simple presence, that there is a place in the world of work for people of every description?

A student expressed it perfectly. “What I want to work on this year is introducing the kids to some successful minority community members. I am thinking about how I can do this in the most effective way, because I want my kids to get to know (and see) business people, doctors, scientists, lawyers, dentists, college professors, business owners, financial planners, engineers, and the like. I want my kids to know that there are more possibilities for them besides being a teacher, working in a factory, in construction, or selling drugs. I really believe that the students need to see successful people who look like them.”

I agree that this is an important issue, so I am including some ideas that teachers and mentors can use to think creatively about find interesting people who do interesting things. I hope that readers will add to my list, even add specifics. If you would like to volunteer to share your experiences with work and school, please post your information and ideas to this blog.

• Start by connecting with local business organizations and the people you know. Contact the Chamber of Commerce in your community (there are many in Metro Oregon.) Most have administrative people who can make suggestions and connections.

• Talk to your friends and colleagues who do interesting work, and have interesting hobbies and sidelines. Ask them to talk to your kids about the things they needed to learn in school to be able to do what they do now.

• Ask these same people about the people they know. Build a list - think of this as your personal backpack of connections.
• Seek out people who do interesting or valuable things - who have NOT gone through the traditional college path - but needed to learn skills to do their work.
• Read the newspaper – this can be a great activity for students. Ask each student to find a story about someone who does something that is interesting to them (mountain rescuers, firefighters, soldiers, artists having an opening show, dancers, photographers, lawyers who win a case, doctors, veterinarians at the zoo …. the possibilities are endless. These articles are useful in several ways – it allows you to build a list of jobs that people do, it lets you get to know your kids a little better, it provides names and organizations connected with the work that people actually do, and, at times, contact information. Use this list to start thinking creatively with your students about ways to invite people to come to your classroom, program or school.
And then there is the serendipity approach. This story, my own experience, shows that just the right thing can happen when you are busy doing something else.
Years ago, I was a teacher in the Talented and Gifted program - working with kids of many colors. One African American girl seemed shy and was having a hard time connecting with the class. I tried everything I knew to connect with her and draw her out - with minimal results … until …We were doing a unit on whales, and the kids had invited a speaker to come from Greenpeace to talk to them - purely randomly, a young black woman came into the classroom. My student literally snapped to attention - she was riveted by this woman. She spoke in class, asked questions and displayed a great sense of humor. What a difference! Long story short the changes stayed. She was a new girl - bright, involved and far more confident. When I asked her at the end of the term what she wanted to be - she (who in the beginning wanted to ‘have no responsibilities’) wanted to be a Marine biologist.

So, I believe the key to finding role models may not be to look for people who fit a description, but to keep your classroom and program open to the many people who may be part of your community. Trust that color is not the only diversity your kids need to see, and that the perfect role model may look different, but still bring that perfect something into the life of a kid, without YOU needing so hard to make things happen. Present as many possibilities as you can, as you go through your classwork and activities, and trust that the details will take care of themselves.