– Leah Chambers
Throughout his book, Start with Why, and all throughout his TED Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” writer and entrepreneur Simon Sinek repeats the refrain, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do serves as proof of what you believe [about the world].” At the most basic level, Sinek is arguing the old adage, “Actions speak louder than words” when it comes to communicating one’s values. We all know people who are “all talk.” Their words don’t sync up with their behaviors, and—because of this—they struggle to win our respect, our loyalty, our trust, or our vote. These people are not “living” their WHY—their true purpose. They are more focused on WHAT they do and HOW they do it—more focused on achieving fame, success, or wealth, which Sinek would agree is all secondary to the WHY. From time to time, we are all “all talk”—in love with the idea of having a higher purpose or cause but more focused on earning a paycheck and just making it through the day. On the 35-year journey to discover my WHY, I have been quite the dreamer and often struggled to align what I was doing with what I really believe about the world. I’ve taken jobs just to pay the bills, not because I found working at Target or Arby’s or waiting tables to be particularly inspiring. But now, I think I have my WHY figured out.
So, WHAT do I do? I teach. More specifically, I teach writing to first-year college students, and it is WHAT I have been doing for the past nine years. Doing some quick mental math, I have taught 56 sections of first-year writing to approximately 1,120 students who have written about 4,480 essays. These essays tend to average 4 pages each, so that’s about 17,920 pages of student writing that I have read and assessed since 2008.
HOW do I do these things? I teach with an ever-evolving
pedagogy that provides students with two, three and sometimes
four opportunities to revise and to improve. I offer feedback, a lot
of it. And yes, I know they don’t read it all. I give them choices—sometimes about topics and other times about readings. I listen—to what they say and what they don’t. I emphasize the importance of setting goals, in my course and in others, and I facilitate class discussion about success, motivation, and the difficulties of adjusting to college course work and of managing time. Last year, I had my students keep an “Academic Reflection Journal” in which they articulated and reflected on their goals, how well they were meeting them, and the difficulties and triumphs that they experienced during their first semester. This fall, I will be asking my students to reflect on how they learn and teaching them reading strategies. And, yes, I still teach writing. I teach focus, organization, transitions, how to write well in different genres, and—for five minutes every semester—how to use a comma. I view the first-year composition course as a site of enculturation—a place where students can develop their studentness. So in English 110, writing is not the content. It instead becomes the means through which to address these non-cognitive issues that often make or break a student’s chances of success.
WHY do I teach like this? Because when a student’s aspirations don’t match her motivation, I lose sleep at night. Because I am troubled when students disappear and drop out. Because I know that college is expensive, and the government will want its money back, regardless of whether my students graduate or find jobs. Because I don’t believe, nor did any of my teachers, that “sink or swim” is a teaching philosophy. And educators with this mentality should perhaps re-think their career choice. Because I care.
And WHAT I do also serves as proof of what I don’t believe about the world. This is my “negative WHY.” I don’t believe that everyone has a fair shot. I don’t believe the playing field is level or that no matter where a person grows up, he/she has a chance to succeed. In short, I don’t believe in equality of opportunity. This is an issue that has been addressed by numerous writers, including two of my favorites, Jonathan Kozol and Mike Rose. Like them, I do believe it’s a myth—even though my own life, when viewed in particular ways, could serve as an example of the contrary.
I grew up in a single-parent household. My mother worked long hours, and my sister became my babysitter when she was 12. I remember eating a lot of microwaved food; we weren’t allowed to use the stove. I took my first job at 14, a paper route, so that I could help pay for my school clothes and have spending money for mall trips with friends. At 16, I worked 30 hours each week at Arby’s, a job that necessitated a vehicle. I leased a little red Ford Ranger pickup for $200/month + the cost of insurance. I entered higher education in the year 2000, a first-generation college student financing a four-year degree on a lot of federal loans. Throughout college and graduate school, I worked 2-3 jobs at a time.
This snapshot supports the notion that even, with a lack of financial resources or a seeming lack of parental involvement, with hard work and determination, a person can raise his/her socioeconomic status and actually do better than the generation before—in essence, a “bootstraps” narrative. It’s true that I do live a relatively comfortable middle-class life. Sure, I will be paying off my student loans until my two-year-old enters college (no joke), but my children will never have to worry about working at 14 to help buy their own clothes.
But it’s not that simple, and I refuse to allow my story to be used to claim that equal opportunity does exist. Many people have tried to frame it that way: “Well you worked hard. Why can’t other people do that?” Maybe. But there are additional, essential details to consider, and it’s also really important for those who believe that everyone has a fair shot to understand that hard work and opportunity are not mutually exclusive. It’s far more complicated than that. I was smart, and I “played school” very well. In 20+ years of schooling, I earned only two “Bs,” both in the 6th grade and both in non-academic classes—woodshop and art. And in both cases, my perfectionist tendencies led me to not complete projects on time.
Leah’s letter from Beverly Cleary..
Beyond that, Lamphere School District, the public district I attended as a child, was well funded and offered me a high-quality education. I had teachers who genuinely cared for me, sparked my curiosity and helped me fall in love with reading and writing. In first grade, I was encouraged by my teacher, Mrs. Niesluhowski, to write a letter to my favorite author, Beverly Clearly. On the outside of the reply envelope, Cleary had printed “KEEP WRITING” in block letters, and inside, in shaky blue ink, signed with a red heart, she thanked me for the poems I sent her. My grandmother took the letter to work and had it laminated.
Although my mother worked long hours, she spent any energy she had left in the evenings making sure that my homework was done—and done well. We moved twice before I graduated high school, and both times my mom made certain we stayed in the same school district. She also signed me up for the summer reading program at my local library and any other free educational programming that was available. And when high school started, and she had trouble understanding my homework, she would call her brother or my [now] stepdad to help out.
I had a tremendous amount of family support and guidance that resulted in me being valedictorian of my senior class and earning a 50% scholarship to a private liberal arts college. I graduated in four years, second in my class, and made an easy transition to graduate school. Yes, I worked hard—but at Arby’s and Target—not at school. It was the combination of my innate intelligence, the quality schools that I attended as a child, and the support from home that gave me an advantage over many of the kids to whom I was statistically identical.
Today, most first-generation college students from low-income households don’t do as well. In fact, synthesizing information provided by the Pell Institute, Liz Riggs (2014) reported: “Just 11 percent of low-income students who are the first in their family to attend college will have a college degree within six years of enrolling in school” (para. 5). To summarize Riggs further, there are a myriad of reasons for their inability to graduate. Most of these students work full-time jobs while they attend school. They also tend to come from high schools not geared toward college preparation. Their lack of preparedness for higher education, combined with insufficient hours to devote to schooling, often leads to their failure.
Arguably, the colleges and universities that admit these students are the ones who are failing. Although they open their doors to these students and can anticipate their struggles, they often lack resources and programs that target this population for support, and they also don’t work hard enough to provide them. More of these students would likely graduate if more colleges and universities felt ethically bound to their success and cared about what happens when these students leave higher education with a pile of debt and no degree. But to do that, they would have to view them as people and not numbers.
I was more fortunate. My college offered a program specifically for low-income, first-generation students, the McNair Scholars Program, named for Ronald McNair, an African-American physicist and astronaut who died during the launch of the Challenger in 1986. The program was designed to encourage students to seek graduate degrees, and it did this by providing its members with financial support, as well as mentoring from a faculty member. In my three years as a McNair Scholar, I received over $5,000 toward my education. When I completed my doctoral work in 2010, I was the first McNair Scholar from my college to do so.
I would argue that at least half of the 1,100 students I have taught since 2008 did not have the level of sponsorship and support that I had growing up. As I have seen in my own courses, many of our students struggle to balance the demands of college with family and work responsibilities. For first-generation college students (42% of Clarion University students), this struggle is often compounded by a lack of understanding on the part of both students and their families of the effort and time commitment college demands. (I would argue that nearly all our students underestimate the rigor of academic work). More of our students than we realize are supporting themselves financially, or, in some cases, even helping their parents pay the bills. See map above. Not only do students tend to underestimate the amount of time they need to devote to their studies, some simply don’t have the hours in the day. So, with all that our students have not working in their favor, ask yourself, what can WE do?
I teach in the ways that I describe above because I believe that in the classroom, we can level the playing field. We can provide the balance of challenge and support that students need to thrive. We can hold them accountable but also recognize their struggles. We can, quietly, walk over and wake up the student with her head on the desk and, instead of assuming she’s lazy, talk to her about why she’s so tired. We can open up a dialogue about making better choices to help juggle work and family with school. By not pretending that everyone has a fair shot and by opening our eyes to these inequities and to the baggage that students bring with them into the classroom, we can increase their chances to graduate—or to at least return for another semester.
The Community Learning Workshop further demonstrates my WHY. The Learning Workshop is the drop-in homework and tutoring center on Main Street that I co-direct with Rich Lane. The Workshop offers all of its programs and services free of charge. (To decrease costs, people have suggested that we charge for our services. My colleague Rich and I agree that we would close down before we would do that.) In essence, the Learning Workshop is what Deborah Brandt, a scholar of literacy studies would call, a site of “sponsorship.” Brandt (1998) defines literacy sponsors as “any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy—and gain advantage by it in some way” (p. 166). At the Learning Workshop, we support K-12 students and community adults in their education and learning. Many of these individuals come from low-income households, where resources to provide for their basic needs, like food and heat, are sometimes lacking. And in some cases, the children’s parents have low levels of literacy and are unable to assist them with their homework.
The Workshop exists to help these students excel and to increase their educational opportunities. I do not mean to overestimate the impact of the Workshop and what we do, but I do know that without it, many of these children would not be doing as well in school. And there is no amount of hard work and trying that would help them succeed. They aren’t lazy. They don’t desire to fail. What prevents them from doing well and what boosts the success of other children, who are equally smart or equally struggling, is often just a matter of support and resources. Those of us who have the means to provide the support, provide the opportunities, and make the playing field as level as possible—in our classrooms and in our larger communities—must make every effort to do just that. And it all starts with WHY.
If we can rediscover WHY we went into education, WHY we think any of it matters, and what it is about ourselves that made teaching our calling or career choice, we would likely be better and more effective at what we do. If we can look past the content that we bring into the classroom and focus less on coverage and on meeting the deadlines of our well-intentioned course schedules, we might actually catch a glimpse of our students—with their hopes, their goals, their challenges, their needs, and their ever-increasing loan debt. And then we might figure out how to really help them succeed.
Brandt, D. (1998). Sponsors of literacy. College Composition and Communication, 49(2), 165-185. Retrieved from https://wac.appstate.edu/sites/wac.appstate.edu/files/112BrandtSponsorsofLiteracy.pdf
Riggs, L. (2014). First-generation college-goers: Unprepared and behind. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/12/the-added-pressure-faced-by-first-generation-students/384139/
Sinek, S. (2011). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. Portfolio/Penguin.
Leah Chambers has been an English professor at Clarion University since 2010. She specializes in teaching composition to first-year students and is also the coordinator of CU’s Freshman Inquiry Seminar Program. Her research interests include student retention and developing classroom strategies to support students through their first year. She lives in a small town 15 miles west of Clarion, PA with her husband, Tyler, an 8th grade Science teacher and her two daughters, Ava and Mia. When’s she’s not teaching or writing about teaching she enjoys running, baking and spending time with her children