award-winning educator, mental health advocate, social entrepreneur, inspirational speaker, author/writer, program executive, and radio host
Photo Credit: Brett Jordan on Unsplash
© 2020: Beyond SPRH, LLC / Email: info (at) slyoung.com / All rights reserved
My journey toward educational enlightenment was an ongoing challenge in an attempt to align my active learning style to the overused passive teaching approaches used in many classrooms. Moreover, significant portions of academic grades are derived from the scores received on testing checkpoints based more on memorization and regurgitation versus applied learning. This is a method to evaluate students’ progress, but it isn’t always a fair or an accurate indicator of knowledge acquisition. Therefore, students who want and need different approaches to learn material can become frustrated and subsequently/needlessly left behind. The resulting negative outcomes effect countless students, including an almost disastrous impact on my ability to be academically successful.
It was always difficult for me to assimilate into a system that required a regurgitation of various facts, figures, and dates. Because I didn’t understand or relate to the relevance of this methodology, I wasn’t motivated to exert effort to memorize seemingly meaningless information. Notwithstanding, if someone explained the material in a way in which it connected with me, then it would have been much easier to learn versus a temporary storage of information to complete a checkpoint at a moment in time. This tortuous and unending cycle continued from junior high school throughout most of my master’s programs. This resulted in my continuous struggle to perform in a system that didn’t teach in a way that connected with me.
In high school, I failed six of seven classes in the tenth grade, barely completed my second attempt at the same grade, and limped across the finish line to receive my diploma. During my undergraduate program, I continued to struggle because I wasn’t motivated to learn. I was pushed through a disjointed process that I didn’t understand and couldn’t identify. Nevertheless, I endured through a pattern of taking copious notes, minimal classroom interactions, lack of real-time engagement with the material learned, and sitting in several classes with students who I barely knew anything about them beyond their names. Therefore, I was forced to assimilate into a homogenous process that leveraged outdated, inflexible, impersonal, and mostly brainless activities that weren’t designed for me, my learning style, or my needs.
An educator’s role isn’t to be some distant, unapproachable figurehead who doesn’t connect with the human element or struggles. Being a teacher isn’t just about the delivery of material… it’s about inspiring individuals (not groups of students) to become better versions of themselves. This process requires attention to detail, effective communication skills, good interpersonal skills, and a willingness to proactively identify potential struggles to intervene before situations deteriorate into further challenges.
I understand these issues well, as I encountered and battled numerous professors who were insensitive, arrogant, and belittling characters who didn’t focus on the needs of their customers (the students) and the purpose for their professional existence. One time I had a documented car issue, which led to me being late for a final exam. After rushing to get there, explaining the reason for my absence, and showing the receipt for the work completed, I was denied an opportunity to take the exam. Another incident occurred after getting approved to submit assignments after the end of the semester due to a personal issue. Then, once the assignments were submitted, the professor (without warning or advance notice) downgraded my earned grade of an “A” to a “C.” Then, there was the time that my mother was sick, so I withdrew from a class. Shortly thereafter, she got better… so I requested to be reinstated into this class. I asked the professor to reply to my student and personal email addresses on the message. Their response was sent only to my student email account, which I didn’t check because there wasn’t a message in my personal email account. Later, I discovered that the professor unbeknownst to me reinstated my enrollment into this class. However, because I didn’t know it or submit any further work, the professor posted an “F” grade without any follow-up. The insensitivities and needlessness of each of these incidents further complicated my relationship with higher education and desire to earn a degree.
Educators have enormous responsibilities and considerable powers that can (and do) negatively impact and change the trajectory of students’ lives with callous actions. Unfortunately, I had numerous experiences with individuals who were focused on punishment versus attempts to resolve bona fide challenges to help a (this) student achieve personal success. These repeatedly thoughtless actions almost had negative and long-term impacts on my educational journey, life, and future.
Over time, I haphazardly avoided various hurdles during my quest for educational achievements that was driven by desire, drive, and often pure luck. Notwithstanding, I was a committed student. Yet, the misalignment and firmness of academic models with too much focus on uniformity in educational delivery almost prevented me from achieving my academic dreams. Students, teaching, and learning are dynamic, unique experiences. Therefore, these environments in which knowledge is transferred must be capable of engaging students by leveraging various methods and strategies that might be inconsistent with an educator’s preferred approach to material delivery.
During my first graduate degree program at The George Washington University, I fortunately had a class with Dr. Erik K. Winslow. Immediately, I recognized that there was something different and unassuming about him. Dr. Winslow was personable, interacted with his students, and instinctively I knew that he cared about us, too. It was during this class that I finally felt that I was learning. The difference was that he wasn’t overly formal, was interactive, and kept me engaged. For the first time, I had a professor who leveraged an active teaching strategy that fully connected with my senses. This allowed me to really learn and immerse myself into the subject matter in a meaningful way. After these positive interactions, I took as many classes with him as my program allowed, which resulted in me adding another unofficial major in human resource management.
At the end of my program, I stumbled while taking a financial investments analysis class that still gives me nightmares almost two decades later. I really struggled in this class. At the end of the semester, the professor declared that the final exam would take approximately four hours. I didn’t believe that an exam could take that long, so I didn’t study the way I should have to do well. This decision to not adequately prepare for this exam translated into me getting a “C” in this class, which caused my grade point average to drop below a 3.0. A few weeks later, I learned that my inaction had a significant impact, as I was academically dismissed from the university two semesters prior to my graduation.
After all my academic challenges with learning and professors, I was exhausted and really didn’t want to try anymore. I tried my best and no matter the amount of effort I put in… I always had an issue that prevented me from being successful. For almost my entire life, I tried to make the educational system work for me (even though it didn’t), so I wasn’t sure if I had any more to give. During my academic suspension, I really examined the reasons that I wanted and needed to get my master’s degree. I knew that it was important, and I worked incredibly hard to get to this point. However, by the end of the next semester, my grade point average had to be above a 3.0 or I would be permanently dismissed from the university.
If I returned to school and wasn’t successful, then I tried best. If I was admitted again and excelled, then I could earn my degree. Therefore, I reluctantly wrote a letter to apply for readmission mainly because I didn’t have anything to lose and a lot to gain. Furthermore, I refused to allow my circumstances or future to be left to chance. This refusal to give-up made me humble myself to ask one of my favorite professors, Dr. Winslow, for a reconsideration of a grade from the previous semester. Fortunately, after reviewing my assignments, he agreed to change my grade without knowing that his actions had a consequential impact on my ability to graduate, which I did in May 1997 and again in 2000 with my second master’s degree.
Years later, I was compelled to let Dr. Winslow know about the enormous impact that he had on me, my life, and my journey to become an educator. Therefore, I sent him this thank you letter.
December 31, 2011
The George Washington University
School of Business
Attn: Dr. Erik Winslow
2201 G Street, NW, Duques Hall
Washington, DC 20052
RE: Thank You
Individuals do not stop often enough to thank someone for making a difference. During this holiday season, I am pausing to 'thank you' and let you know that your teaching and actions have had a significant impact on my life.
Almost fifteen (15) years ago, a request was made to have a grade changed for one of your management courses that was taken the previous semester. The initial grade assigned was less than expected, but was not challenged immediately because it wasn't a major concern; however, once my G.P.A. dropped below a 3.0 after receiving a 'C' in an extremely difficult finance course, the grade in your course was a concern, as I was about to be placed on academic probation. After your review of my assignments, a grade change was processed. The grade change did not bring my G.P.A. over a 3.0; however, this change did bring my G.P.A much closer to the required minimum G.P.A to remain enrolled in the M.B.A. program. After a semester of academic suspension, a letter was submitted and accepted for me to be re-admitted to the M.B.A. Program.
Your actions prevented me from becoming extremely frustrated, permanently leaving the program, while also contributing to my desire to continue my educational pursuits (obtained a subsequent M.S. in Project Management from G.W.), and stimulated my passion to teach (as an adjunct faculty member at the Northern Virginia Community College for the past three (3) years).
Your consideration during my time of personal challenge has impacted and benefited my students; if a student experiences academic challenges, the student is given additional consideration and an opportunity to excel as a direct result of the actions taken in my situation. Each time one of my students is struggling, my first consideration is related to the professors that used their power as a weapon versus an opportunity to create a 'learning moment'. Then, my consideration is focused on the support you provided in my time of need. Your action is remembered and in return support is provided to any student that needs assistance to overcome their personal challenge(s). It has been my quest and my goal to help all students, especially the at-risk students, to achieve their educational objectives.
Furthermore, the value of your contributions to my knowledge about the field of Management Science is priceless; however, the most important lessons you taught were about compassion, understanding, and that power can be used to help (instead of hurt) others. Moreover, your guidance that leaders sometimes need to break the rules and not be resistant to creating change has been very prominent throughout my career.
The impact your teachings have had on my life has reached well-beyond the classroom, as many of the life lessons discussed in your classes were not realized until years later. In this vein, I hope that my tenure as a faculty member will lead to the same level of life enrichment for my students, as your teachings have provided to my life.
Thanks again for all you've done and continue to do for me, my current students, and future students.
Stacey (Sly) Young
In response, Dr. Winslow wrote:
Thank you for the letter. I was almost in tears as I read it. I do remember you and really felt at the time that you were a special case and would make a positive contribution if/when given a chance. thank you again and keep on trucking.
About a month ago, I wanted to update Dr. Winslow about my many years as an educator, my accomplishments, and me now being a doctoral student. Unfortunately, I sadly learned that he died on January 28, 2018.
Even though I can’t tell him personally, I must share our mutual successes publicly to inspire other educators to give a student a chance, as there might be struggles/battles they’re facing that can’t be imagined or understood. Educators must understand that even their smallest actions can have a lasting and potentially disastrous impact.
If Dr. Winslow was alive today, I would send him this message.
I have some incredible news! I know that we discussed the possibility of me applying to G.W.’s Business School to get my doctorate degree. However, I really didn’t want to obtain another degree, unless there was a justifiable reason for it. Now, with over twelve years teaching at a community college and three years at a university, I now understand that teaching is my passion and something that I want to do for the rest of my life. Also, a terminal degree is required to obtain a tenured-track position at a university. Therefore, I’m happy to share that I am now a doctoral student at Marymount University. This program’s focus is educational leadership and organizational innovation.
Additionally, in 2018, I received several recognitions for my work teaching inmates. First is the “Martin Luther King Innovative Service Award for Educational Excellence for African-Americans.” The second is the “Distinguished Service Award” for my contributions to my community. The third is the “Volunteer of the Month” award at a local jail. Never did I imagine that this once serial struggling student would transform his life to educate countless others.
It’s interesting that these awards were received for teaching an incarcerated population, as I reluctantly taught at a jail after family and friends directed me to this population. I am grateful for these pushes because teaching in this environment has made me a better man and educator. Also, it emphasizes the importance of second chances to help others who might otherwise feel hopeless and need inspiration. This is critically important for me (and them) because the lessons taught are based on my lived-experiences overcoming numerous life challenges.
Many years ago, in 1996, you gave me an incredible break by processing a grade change, which allowed me to complete my program and graduate in May 1997. Without your kindness and grace, I don’t believe that I would have received my first master’s degree. Your belief in me instilled an enormous sense of gratitude and desire to help/inspire others similarly to the way you did for me. I try to emulate your teaching style and casual presence in my classrooms, which allows me to connect with my students in meaningful ways. Moreover, like you, I have a considerable amount of classroom interaction that creates a family-style environment and personal experiences.
Please know that I owe you so much that words can’t convey. I am extremely thankful for everything you taught me, you believing in me, and you training me to be a compassionate educator who understands the responsibilities entrusted in me. Furthermore, I realize that our power as educators must be used in ways that help, inspire, and transform individuals to uplift themselves to achieve their potential/greatness.
The lessons you taught will be leveraged throughout my life to thoughtfully and purposely develop students similarly to the way in which you did for me.
Stacey (Sly) Young
Thank you, Dr. Erik K. Winslow, for everything!!! Because of you, I am a better man, professor, and in a few years… I will be… Dr. Stacey L. Young.
Learn about Mr. Young’s work to help/inspire opportunity (at-risk) communities at: slyoung.com and slyoung.com/inspired.html