By Melanie Ward, M.Ed.
I share a story with my students every semester and it goes like this:
Growing up, I had an undiagnosed learning disorder that made mathematical concepts very challenging for me. I attended high school in a small town in Texas, and the school system being what it was in the late 80’s and early 90’s, my mathematical inability was chalked up to nothing in particular and I was placed in lower level math classes. How low, you might ask? I graduated high school without ever taking basic algebra.
I started college right after graduation. Of course, based on my placement tests, I registered for developmental math. Although I was aware that I lacked many of the skills needed to be successful in math, I sat in the class day in and day out, never asking questions or asking for help when I didn’t understand. Instead, I tried to shrink away to not be noticed; to not be called on and embarrassed. I’m sure you can guess what grade I earned that semester.
I don’t shy away from telling my students I have an F on my transcript. I don’t even shy away from telling them I have two F’s on my transcript as a result of doing the exact same thing the following semester. The next part is what is most important. I share with my students that the following semester, after two sobering failures, I finally decided to advocate for my own success. I went to my professor’s tutorial sessions. I asked for help in class. I worked harder to try to understand the concepts. The outcome of that semester was much different, but more important than the improved grade, I learned to stand up for my own success.
As a professor working with developmental level reading and writing students, I see students who are just like I was when I began college. Many of them have spent a good deal of their lives experiencing failure, and the deep but hidden wounds of those experiences are evident. Some of these students had an advocate as children and young adults; a parent, guardian, or teacher who stood up for them and helped make decisions for them in their best interest. However, now as adults in college, that safety net has been cut, and students find themselves not knowing how to advocate for their success.
At the beginning of each new semester, I spend time helping the students understand self-advocacy. We focus on two main points: 1) What do you want? and 2) What do you need to get what you want? As we start to learn about self-advocacy, students create graphic organizers to help them envision how they will advocate for themselves. For example, if a student responds that they want to improve their grade in their math class, they have identified what they want. Next is the harder part. I ask them to determine what they need to do to achieve that “want”, who may help them, or what services they may utilize to help. As these points are discussed and identified, the student creates their “plan” for self-advocacy. The flow chart clearly lays out how they will ask for help, a timeline for their plan, and what services they can use to succeed.
This practice doesn’t stop there. I would be remiss if I lead you to believe that this is a one and done activity. Clearly this is something that must be done repetitively as issues arise so that the process becomes engrained in the student. As time progresses and the student begins to do this type of self-advocacy on their own, I carefully use language to praise them such as, “You are really working hard to advocate for yourself. I’m proud of you.”
The ability to advocate for one’s own success is a skill students need to develop. Teaching students to evaluate their situations, identify areas of need, and empowering them to reach out for support are all necessary could be the difference between a student persevering to graduation or skipping out on the dreams that led them to college in the first place.