How Opportunity Leads to Student Success

As I sit in yet another hotel room after sitting through yet another general session in yet another conference for educational leaders, I reflect on my humble beginnings. 

I think about growing up “on the block” in a South Bronx neighborhood only a few short blocks from Yankee Stadium. I think about playing those neighborhood games that we played after school or on the weekends – Hot Peas & Butter, Off the Point, and Red Rover – or playing “baseball” in an empty lot with a taped broom handle and a sponge ball we got from the corner store for $0.25. I think about being called from playing by my Mommy to run and get something from the store, running underneath the window – four stories up – and catch the money she dropped, so I didn’t have to go all the way up to get it. 

Young Thad Gittens

I also think about all of the trouble that was there to be found if you allowed yourself to fall prey to it. You know… the perils prevalent in inner-city neighborhoods across the country. I won’t claim that my environment was the worst, but it was far from the best. But that was my life, and I didn’t know any better. What got me through? Of course, my support unit – my family – was not going to allow me to fail. 

But I also had another group of individuals who would not let me fail: my homies. See, I was always tall for my age, so I ran with guys who were a little older than I was, and while I had to deal with some ridicule along the way, they looked out for me. They educated me more often than not on the proper way of doing things and not the wrong way, as you might suspect. I learned from them; they were smarter than me.

So, how have I been able to attain the level of success that I have while they are stuck in the seemingly perpetual cycle of generational poverty?

When the System Fails

The culprit in large part was the failing public school system that they attended in our community. Notice I stated, “…that they attended.” My mother, a life-long educator, chose to send me to private and parochial schools through high school so that I could have the benefit of all of the trimmings that came with it. I am sure there were shining stars among the many educators that taught my friends, but holistically, they did not have access to many of the resources and opportunities that I took for granted. It was evident in the questions they’d ask me:

“You have computers in your school?” “You only have 15 people in your class?” “Your school hooked you up with that job at that advertising agency?”

They weren’t coming from a place of hate or envy as much as awe. From the schools I attended, there was something else that I learned, internalized, and try still to pass on to everyone I encounter as an educational leader: Put more into your community than you take out of it. That mantra would have boded well for my guys, something many of them did not quite live up to as they grew older.

Here’s what I know: 

There is no good reason for their lives to be any less successful or prosperous than mine, yet that is the reality.

They were at least as intelligent and more resourceful than I was. I am not going to completely absolve them of any poor decisions they made along the way; I get the importance of personal responsibility, and I am clear that there are scores of people who have persevered in spite of difficult circumstances. 

But I also recognize that their lack of success is not as simple as stating that they just did not “get it done.” For me, it comes down to one word… one word that thrust me down the path of success and righteousness and eluded my friends, making their path a more arduous one: OPPORTUNITY.

Thad & friends
Thad & friends.

The Power of Opportunity

I had the opportunity (you could call it “good fortune”) to see a man in my home be a husband, be a father, and rear me to put my best into everything; to be helpful and kind to others; and to NEVER forget where I came from. (BTW, I mean no disrespect to all of the single mothers out there who are holding down their households and raising their children exceptionally.) 

I had the opportunity to have a woman in my household who instilled in me the importance of excelling in school, taught me how to care for myself so no one else had to, and provided tangible examples of how one attacks challenges through hard work. 

I had the opportunity to be taught in non-traditional ways; I engaged in learning through my teachers’ use of the Socratic Method and didn’t realize then its significance in teaching me how to engage authentically. I had the opportunity to produce work on computers throughout junior high and high school. 

I had the opportunity to learn outside of the four walls of a classroom and engage in service learning projects in the community during the school day. These opportunities provided me with the wherewithal to gain access to and seize even more opportunities that I have been able to leverage into a good career in education. 

When I look at where I am and where they are, there is no doubt about it for me: OPPORTUNITY is the difference.

Know Your “Why” and Be the Difference

And so, that has inspired me to make a difference – to be the difference – for young people who have been relegated to similar circumstances. As a public school educational leader, I have promoted and supported the implementation of non-traditional educational methodologies and strategies, technology integration, field experiences, and service learning because I believe all students should have the opportunity to engage in those learning experiences. 

Young people like Miguel and Hector are my “why” or my “call-to-action” if you will. Young people like Michael and Allen, Pee-Wee and Willie, Bucky, Irving, and all of the homies I ran with in the concrete jungle of the South Bronx – this is for them.

If you’ve stayed until the end of my story, I leave you with this question: What is your “why”?

That is, for whom or what are you doing this hard work on a daily basis? There are so many thought leaders who speak about the significance of establishing and staying connected to one’s “why”, so you’re probably already there. 

One teacher's "why"
One e2L partner teacher’s “Why:” To change the negative mindset towards mathematics.

But how have you actually used your “why” to influence others? How, especially if you are an educational leader, have you used your own personal “why” to inform the creation of your organizational “why”? And what are you doing to ensure that all of your students are able to have and engage in opportunities that may not be available to them otherwise? 

Do you have the organizational capacity to ensure that it is happening in its most optimal state, or would you benefit from a thought partner who can help you cultivate a culture where these opportunities flourish? I was once faced with this question, which is why I began working with engage2learn as a partner when I was a principal, and it ultimately led to my working for this great organization. 

Now isn’t the time to allow pride to prevent you from partnering with others to actualize this, even in spite of the difficult circumstances we face in education to meet all students’ needs and help them to develop and attain their aspirations. Kids, like my friends, deserve it, and they cannot wait. 

Here’s to us embracing this challenge and attacking it with the sense of urgency and excellence it requires, even if it means seeking assistance from outside entities to get it done. I wish you well and much success, and I would love to connect with you to discuss how you can make it happen.

A handful of e2L leadership and staff members
Thad & engage2learn colleagues.

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