Ashley Marie Oehlerking is a secondary teacher who has gone above and beyond her duty to educate her students. She recognized the plight of at-risk youth and as made it her mission to do everything she can to give them a chance at a great life. That’s what makes her one of our Champions of Advocacy. Check out her Q&A below:
Tell me about your journey to becoming an advocate for teens at risk?
I’ve been an advocate for teens at-risk the day I decided to become a secondary teacher. I’ve taught high school and junior high school Reading, English Language Arts, and Literacy in both traditional and alternative classroom settings as well as in a girls’ juvenile detention centre, teaching the students whose standardized test scores labeled them as “low-ability” – I’ve taught within the public school tracking system.
I taught within urban and low-income communities underrepresented in college enrolment and overrepresented in the prison system; my students battled with an array of mental health needs and were at-risk for dropping out of school and becoming involved in the juvenile justice system. They coped with varying traumas; marginalization; homelessness; neglect; bullying; discrimination; physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; gun, gang, and gender violence; substance abuse; depression; negative image misconceptions; feelings of a lack of self worth; and difficulties navigating the school terrain. **My students were some of the brightest individuals but faced the toughest challenges and barriers.**
My teaching experiences and students motivated me to earn my Master of Arts Degree, studying sociology of education and juvenile delinquency, igniting my passion for social justice and youth advocacy. Because I believe in my students, no matter their situations, it was important to me to continue learning about the ways I can support and advocate for teens at risk emotionally and with regard to mental wellness, tuning in most to pro-social behaviour management, school dropout theories, trauma-informed teaching practices, and social justice curriculum design.
“It takes a village to raise a child” – it takes the entire community to contribute to the growth and wellness of youth. I believe all youth have the right to reach their truest potentials and the community and adults, such as teachers, have the responsibility to help youth reach their fullest potentials, no matter where they live, no matter what they have to cope with and battle with daily, no matter what statistics are saying about them and no matter who they identify as. All youth deserve the amount of attention, support and advocacy they need.
My goal, beyond academic and social benchmarks, in the classroom is to help youth create empowering self-images and identities, to help youth gain a healthy selfesteem, to help youth See their self-worth and value in our society. What is the biggest misconception that people have about teens at risk? I’ve seen people look at teens at-risk as merely a statistic instead of Seeing an individual, another valuable human being. An individual who has every right, just as other teens, to be given the opportunities to discover their best selves, reach their truest potentials and take off and soar. It is our responsibility as a community to help youth break through and dispel the societal barriers and inner battles/“demons” they are facing.
Can you describe one moment where you really knew you made a difference for your cause?
When I saw students leave my classroom feeling important, intelligent, good about themselves, worthy, big-hearted and ready to take on the world with confidence, bravery and determination – that for a period in the day, they felt what it’d be like to rid of their inner battles and societal barriers.
What can everyday people do to help spread awareness of teens at risk?
I think it starts with innovative ideas such as Wearable Therapy, where people see the attire and become inspired to ask questions and begin a conversation, which leads to reflection and more questions, which leads to more dialogue, which could lead to action and advocacy.
If you could make one change to how we deal with teens at risk, what would it be?
I wish there were an abundance of supports easily available and accessible in our schools and communities to any youth facing challenges and needing help and guidance. I wish we saw more money and attention devoted to the social service and mental health sector. I wish we saw more of the world attending to and tuning into the critical issues of youth advocacy just as much as they tune into the television. Youth deserve it.
What are the biggest obstacles you face in advocating for teens at risk?
I think perhaps if more people were educated about the critical issues teens at-risk face, I think more people would show empathy and become motivated to implement new, innovative ideas and programs that could benefit teens at-risk and help aid in their healing processes. I think if there were a bit more empathy for teens at-risk, those in decision-making positions would be motivated to be part of the solution and figure out how to devote time and attention and money towards supports and advocacy. A mass movement devoted to youth at risk.
How do you keep from burning out and losing hope?
I continue wanting to learn more and stay informed and educated about youth issues. I continue to devote my career to helping support teens at-risk. I continue to focus on what I can do at the individual level in the classroom to reach the emotional, mental wellness, and academic needs of each youth.
What’s your favourite teens at risk WT design and product?
It is a tie between the Bravery products because it makes me think of so many of my students and Gender is Here, Not Here shirt because I believe our society still has so much progress to make with gender inequality and injustices. What a great way to start the conversation!
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