Jenni McGalliard Marsh’s story as told to WaTasha Barnes Griffin
I was a teacher’s kid and I liked to play teacher. But my father didn’t want me to become a teacher.
At the end of every school day, I went to his classroom at Yorktown. I would do my homework and play school with the other teachers’ kids. At the start of the school year, I would help my mother prepare her kindergarten classroom. I would put up bulletin boards, pack school boxes, make name tags. My father taught art, computers, and the Curriculum Enrichment Program (what they called Yorktown’s high ability program then). He would often have little projects for me after school. I’d sort supplies, re-shelve books for him, and help him set up for the next day’s classes. I saw how much of their work they brought home, too. And I’m not talking about grading. The issues and challenges they faced, that their students faced, I could read them on my parents’ faces. I could tell the days when their students struggled, when something in their students’ lives was incredibly painful or devastating.
I could tell those times when they had to take action to intervene on a student’s behalf, to advocate for a child’s welfare, or to celebrate that kiddo’s triumph. All of it impacted my parent . . . which is why my father didn’t want me to be a teacher. He thought I would be too empathetic and would wear the weight of every student’s worries like an albatross around my neck. Now I know he was absolutely right.
When my children were little, I ran my own communications consulting business from my home—so I could be there for them. I was very engaged at their school. I volunteered to repair books and shelve them at the library. Sometimes, I worked in their classrooms. But most of all, I loved volunteering with struggling readers and trying to get them reading at grade level.
I started working one-on-one with students. At one point, I worked in a little room with five second graders. I so loved how they responded to having an adult who was there helping them because she wanted to be… While I never said it, it was as though they knew I could be anywhere (including my own children’s classroom), but I was there, helping them because I wanted them to be successful—and they rose to the occasion.
In a smaller way, I got to be the teacher I pretended to be as a child. I got to play a small part of each kid’s educational journey, just as so many teachers played a major part in my own.
My parents and many very special teachers in my life instilled in me a lifelong love of learning. My parents are the reason I love reading. Mrs. Nancy Miller showed me that school could sometimes be silly and learning could be a lot of fun. Mrs. Peggy Keller helped me persevere when I felt sure math—and multiplication would be my undoing. Mrs. Marilyn Swander fed my curiosity about the environment and science. Mr. Danny Thornburg fed my love of reading and history. Mrs. Marcia Losco expanded my world—exposing me to interesting cultures and foods—all while equipping me to be a better student. All of these teachers—and so many more poured into me and made me who I am today . . . I think of them often and fondly.
I also think of how they are paid. Teachers today are not paid well—and neither were my parents.. I saw my parents scrimp and save. More importantly, I saw them never hesitate to buy school supplies for students in need. Sometimes an extra winter coat ended up in the shopping cart for a child I would never know. Or when my mom wrote the check for my lunch money, she’d write a check for another child whose father had just been laid off.
These are the issues that we still deal with today at United Way where I’m the President and CEO. Currently, in Delaware County nearly half of all of our community’s households cannot make ends meet. Twenty-one percent of households live in poverty and qualify for public assistance. In addition to that, 26% of households are barely able to make ends meet. They cannot fully fund their basic budget for necessities—let alone set aside savings for an emergency or for asset-building like a buying a home. They are living one crisis away from sliding into poverty. Parents face questions like do they get the car brakes repaired or buy winter coats for the kids—because there isn’t money for both?
When we talked to these families about how best to help them, time and time again the same concern came up–education. Parents lamented that they themselves didn’t take full advantage of their education. People worried about their children getting the most out of their educational experience. Consistently, parents and guardians clearly stated that they wanted the best for their children . . . and they wanted their children to have a better life than they themselves currently had.
We paired their concern with research that shows that a child’s ability to read at third grade is the single greatest predictor of that child’s success in school and in life, and focused our efforts on education. Students failing to meet the 3rd grade reading benchmark are four times more likely to dropout of high school—thirteen times more likely to do so if they live in poverty.
When you consider the statistic that 80% of children in low-income households are not reading at grade level, and nearly half of our county’s households are considered low-income and poverty—making sure our community’s children are having reading success is a natural turning point for our community’s trajectory.
We at United Way realized we could convene volunteers and a coalition of educators and service providers to address these barriers together. We could rally the community to advocate for these children and families to find success through literacy. And, thanks to generous donor support, we could strategically invest in programs that support greater reading outcomes and long-term community change through this work. Working together is the key. We can all come at this with different approaches and agendas—but parents, guardians, families, and students need to know that we are all in this together.
Our community has amazing educators, just like my parents, who daily face incredible challenges while working hard to meet the needs of their students. They need to feel our community’s support. Drop them a note of support, volunteer an hour at the school, and make sure everyone knows teachers are playing a big role in our children’s and our community’s success.
Jenni McGalliard Marsh is the President & CEO of United Way of Delaware County.
WaTasha Barnes Griffin is the Executive Director of the YWCA of Muncie. She serves her community in a variety of ways- but always with passion and compassion. She is the wife of Elder Shoka J. Griffin and the mother to Shoka II and Sa’Niya.
This story originally appeared in Facing Teaching, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.