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Earlene Jefferson: Ripping off the educational labels
"You can't do it."
Those words reverberated throughout Earlene Jefferson’s childhood. In elementary school, she was diagnosed as learning disabled. In high school, that label separated her into special classes away from her friends and subjected her to the adolescent ridicule of her peers.
"You say I can’t. I’ll show you I can't," Jefferson vowed as she skipped school and hung out at a friend's house, watching television, drinking Kool-Aid, and playing cards. Incredibly, her parents never knew she wasn’t going to school until she was supposed to graduate from Hyde Park High School in Chicago. Only then did they discover that Earlene had earned only three credits.
"Why didn’t my parents ever know? Jefferson wondered years later. Why didn't the school call them and tell them their child wasn't coming to school? They simply didn’t care. It was a different time. People were not as concerned. I was a quiet child who never caused trouble. The teachers didn't know what to do with my quietness. I just fell through the cracks."
An alternative school proved just as unsuccessful for Jefferson. At that point, Jefferson’s mother told her teen-aged daughter that she had to do something.
Jefferson joined the Army although she did so reluctantly. "You can’t do it" reared its head again, this time in the form of required push-ups and the "push, push, push" of Army life. After being "recycled" back through basic training, Jefferson left the Army after eight months with a trainee honorable discharge.
Back in Chicago, she started having children. Jason was first, and Jamie followed a few years later. After Jamie was born, Jefferson looked at her life. Broke and uneducated, she was at a crisis point.
"I decided then that they had made a mistake with me," Jefferson recalls. "I was going to show everybody. I had to show them, had to show them."
"Showing them" started with earning her GED. Jefferson took a placement test, met with a counselor, and enrolled in GED classes at Kennedy King College. There she found a lot of motivational teachers. For the first time in her life, Jefferson heard the magical words, "you can do it." Two months later she passed the GED with a high score.
With some success to her credit, Jefferson enrolled in college courses the following fall. She wanted to be an artist.
"Your math scores are really high," a counselor noted. You should go into a field like accounting. You don’t want to be a starving artist." Although Jefferson loved math and dutifully enrolled in the accounting program, what she really heard was "another person telling me what I couldn't do."
Nonetheless, she graduated from the associate’s program with honors and went to Roosevelt College for her bachelor's degree. She graduated from that program with honors as well.
After school, a move to Cleveland didn't work out for Jefferson; Chicago was home. Back in the windy city once more, Jefferson got a job as a parking manager at DePaul University. She loved the position because it allowed her a lot of creativity and better yet, an opportunity to take more college courses at no cost.
After trying an education program to prepare her as a secondary school teacher, Jefferson found the school’s program in human computer interaction (HCI). It was a perfect fit, allowing Jefferson to use her mathematical abilities as well as her creative skills.
"I took a lot of art and psychology courses," she recalls. "You had to know how the mind works with color. I also took a lot of graphic design. It was a fun, creative program."
Soon Jefferson was using her new abilities to evaluate software programs for usability. She was a natural. "I love math," she says, "and I am good at solving things, at critical thinking. I can figure out how to play any game in seconds." In May 2001, Jefferson graduated from DePaul University with a master’s degree in HCI.
Her love of travel and a good friend lured Jefferson to Arizona, but a year and one-half later, she was back in Chicago. Looking for a job, Jefferson went back to Kennedy King College, hoping to reconnect with some of her former teachers.
"You have a master’s degree," a faculty member beamed. "I am so proud of you. We have to find you a job."
They did, and Jefferson joined the business department, teaching two classes. That job led to her current position as a faculty member working on a special project called the Digital Divide. Through this program, Jefferson helps neighborhood residents gain computer literacy through three classes she teaches and through a Technology Resource Center she runs.
Not surprisingly, Jefferson says she uses a lot of technology in her classroom presentations.
"I am always at the students’ computer doing something," she says. "I don’t just sit at a desk. I am always open for questions."
Perhaps most notable is Jefferson's attitude.
"I never, ever tell my students they can’t do something," she says with a tone that allows no room for doubt. "If they want to be an artist, I tell them to be an artist. If they want to be a truck driver, I tell them to be a truck driver. I tell them they can be anything they want to be. Always stick with it. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something."
Jefferson also makes "a big deal" out of their small successes, such as perfect attendance. Good grades on tests get students exempted from the final.
"I like to make learning fun," Jefferson says. "Sometimes we take a day and play a game. The game always has something to do with the lesson we are working on," but it is part of making the class fun and interesting for her students.
"I’m more open to understanding people’s issues as far as learning," she continues. "I try to present my topic in several ways so students can pick up one way or another. I give them visual aids as well as hands-on instruction. I do group projects."
All of this positive reinforcement can be traced back to her first positive step—getting her GED.
"The GED was the first step toward something positive in my life," Jefferson says. "It let me go back to school and realize my dreams. It was a launch pad."
Today, Jefferson is in the second phase of a five-phase online education program that will allow her to set up courses and deliver them online. She will be able to teach from anywhere and indulge her love for travel. Regardless of where her travels take her or what she is teaching her students, she vows that she will never label them.
"Just because you label someone as something, it doesn’t mean that label is that person," she notes. "You have to try to learn, to set goals, and meet those goals. You are not the label."
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