By Dr. Gregory A. Spencer, Vice President – Footsteps2Brilliance

Struggling with Illiteracy

Stupid, fool, ignorant, dumb. These were a few of the insults I received in school after moving from Gulfport, Mississippi to Oakland, California. I was illiterate; I couldn’t read, write, or function in the classroom setting. I found myself struggling in a world that didn’t welcome those who couldn’t produce, comprehend, or embrace English.

As an angry black boy that experienced a segregated elementary school in Mississippi, I had preconceived notions as to what learning was or should be. What I didn’t know until many years later is that I was, in essence, a second language learner due to illiteracy. I felt like an outcast, a foreigner in my own land. As a child, I stayed in the shadows so that I wouldn’t be laughed at or teased.

My southern drawl and Creole and Choctaw roots combined into a dialect that diverged from Standard English. “Y’all talk different in California than we do back home.” People would tell me that I mumbled and they couldn’t understand what I was saying. I stopped speaking unless spoken to in order to avoid snickers and fights.

There was trauma in my home: neglect, abuse, abandonment, and a cycle of illiteracy. My focus as a child was on survival, not learning. At the time, my teachers never asked me about my home life. I know that now, more than ever, teachers and administrators have a full plate these days. They have teaching, testing, counseling, classroom management, safety, and much more to attend to. But at the time, I only felt alone.

illiteracy statistics

While in school, I was in the room, but completely disengaged. By age 9, I had dropped out of school and become a gang leader. By age 12, I had joined the Black Panthers. It was at this crucial point that a teacher, community leader, and police officer conspired to save my life, a fact that I wouldn’t know about for over a decade. They saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself: a hope for a bright future.

These educational collaborators took the time to explore who I was and show me the hope they had, and I was able to eventually turn a corner. I returned to formal education, graduating high school with honors and attending college. After graduation, I became a teacher in L.A. Unified School District. I went on to become a principal, elected city commissioner, and school board president. I concluded my career as a Superintendent and have written two best selling books.

Lessons Learned Applied Today

We’re now living in the post-COVID era of education, and the effects of the pandemic are still palpable for many of our students. Despite our efforts, recent NAEP scores indicate that our students are still struggling to make significant progress. While it is crucial to be intentional in the classroom, we must also recognize the pivotal role of the home environment in education. The home is often the Achilles heel of education, and we need to take a pre-emptive approach to address potential challenges before children start school.

We should strive to connect home and school environments, ensuring that every child comes to school ready to learn. By providing resources and support to families, we can mitigate the potential barriers to literacy and learning that too many of our children still face. Looking back, I wish I had access to such resources to help me overcome the challenges of illiteracy and the feelings of being an outcast sooner.

We must embrace our role as educators to serve every learner to the best of our abilities, regardless of their background or circumstances. Learning begins with instilling hope and encouragement and letting our students know that we care. No child should feel like the pursuit of learning is only for “other” people, as I once did. Fostering a sense of belonging and hope helps level the playing field for all students.

As educators, it is imperative that we look beyond what we see and help students understand their potential. Any success I have been fortunate to achieve is a testament to the individuals who cared enough to listen, teach, coach, and believe in me, a country boy from Mississippi. By addressing challenges before children step foot in a classroom and fostering a strong connection between home and school, we can pave the way for every child to embark on a journey of lifelong learning and personal growth.