From Teacher to Advocate: A Guest Blog Celebrating Adult Education and Family Literacy Week 2015

Photo of Heather Ritchie

Guest Blogger Heather Ritchie, MAACCE President and Professional Development Specialist, Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School

I am a teacher. I am a trainer. I am an educator. I am an administrator. These are the words I use to describe myself when someone asks what I do for a living. Then there is “I am an advocate for adult education.” This is a phrase I never used to use but find myself utilizing more often these days. It is the most powerful of the phrases and I wish all of my colleagues would add it to their titles too.

As many people have done, I did not plan a career in adult education, I evolved into it. I worked in communications and nonprofits. I loved travel and celebrated the unique nature of different cultures locally and abroad. Reading has always been one of my pleasurable pastimes; it is a gateway to information and ideas I never knew existed. Then, I learned about opportunities in my local area to teach adults. (As you’ve probably noticed, my impetus was all about me up until this point.) Then, I started teaching and year by year, my focus has been less about me and more about the students.

The students – amazing individuals who balance family with work at multiple jobs, some of whom have come from other countries and left so much behind, who have dreams of brighter futures for their children and sometimes themselves. The students changed the way I thought about our work. Instead of looking only inside the classroom to see what I could do to best support them, I began looking outside to the broader community and realized how much was hidden from the broader public – our neighbors, our politicians, and businesses.

Whenever advocacy is mentioned and volunteers are called for, the truth is, people usually turn the other way or look at their phones. Why is this? Probably, because it is an unknown experience or it is misunderstood. Most people are afraid this means talking with politicians or public speaking. Advocacy can be those things, but it is so much more! It is getting the message out to anyone and everyone, so that adult students, who are also our neighbors, can have more access to quality opportunities for education.

When I call myself an advocate these days, here is what I think of and hope that you will too:

  • Wearing my literacy green wristband from my local state adult education association, so people ask me about it; and, I remember to tell people I meet about the amazing students, volunteers and educators I know.
  • Forwarding messages to colleagues about what is happening in adult education and encourage them to pass these on to their networks, so more people are thinking about it.
  • Talking about my work with my friends and let them know that new Americans are trying to learn English and it takes an average of 7 years; and, that our public school system is not a panacea for everyone – meaning that those who did not succeed in school were not lazy – that adult education student are trying to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and might just need a helping hand to do it.
  • Sharing a student’s or teacher’s story with someone I interact with – whether while getting a haircut, waiting in a line, chatting at a community picnic.

I have jumped on the wagon as an advocate for adult education and now have the privilege to be the President of MAACCE, the Maryland Association for Adult Community and Continuing Education, and a board member with the National Coalition for Literacy. Through these organizations, which are groups of colleagues collaborating together, we have increased funding for adult education, increased awareness across the state and the nation, provided opportunities for “bigwigs” and our neighbors to engage in their communities by supporting literacy, and helped colleagues become advocates for their students. Collaborating with colleagues and community stakeholders have helped us to achieve a shared vision for the success of adult education students. I smile with warmth and gratitude at the number of success stories and achievements the learners have made through their own hard work and our support.

The longer I am in adult education, which is oftentimes in the shadows of K-12 or higher education, the more I know we as a community need to be better advocates. Our work is in the shadows because we don’t have enough advocates in our midst. We need to come out of our classrooms and shout at the top of our lungs how wonderful our students are and how much they are bringing to our community. Join us for adult education and family literacy week by celebrating, advocating, and sharing with at least 7 people this week #AEFLWeek / @NCLAdvocacy or visit one of the websites above to learn about more opportunities.

Sincerely,

Heather Ritchie