You are currently viewing This Detroit teacher is helping adult learners get back into the classroom

This Detroit teacher is helping adult learners get back into the classroom

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their work.

In the early lessons of his English and social studies classes, Christian Young focuses on welcoming his adult students to school. For many of them, it is the first time they have entered a classroom in years.

For young, engaging students in class assignments and essays begin with an autobiographical essay, an exercise that focuses on the life of the student. Not only does it allow him to gauge their writing skills, but it “gives me a window into them as people,” Young said.

He added, “I continue to pay attention to them throughout the year and find many ways to incorporate their tastes and dreams into the lessons.”

In March, he was named Adult Educator of the Year by the Michigan Reading Association.

Initially, Young did not have a heart to teach. He earned a degree in journalism and, after graduating in 2007, found “thin” opportunities in the field. While accepting freelance reporting opportunities, Young “started underwriting to pay the bills, but I ended up liking it, so I guess I’ve always leaned that way.”

A man looks towards a camera.

Christian Young, adult educator for the Detroit Public School Community District.

Courtesy of Christian Young

He returned to school to pursue a master’s degree in secondary education and English as a second language. While preparing for his degree, Young began teaching English at a Detroit high school in 2014. From there, he continued to find teaching jobs around the city before taking a full-time job. with the Detroit Public Schools Community District Adult Education Program in 2018. .

In recent years, the District of Detroit has prioritized restructuring its GED program. He partnered with Detroit at Work to offer Detroiters without a high school diploma or GED a chance to return to school.

Young spoke to Chalkbeat about his approach to teaching adult students, how he brings current affairs into the classroom, and the advice he clings to.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What attracted you to adult education?

I have always had an interest in developing adult literacy. Until then, I had taught English in middle and high school, often at alternative schools. I’ve been to [Detroit district] job fair, and someone asked if anyone was interested in teaching adult education, and I put my hand up. I had a great interview with Dr. Dedria Willis (then Director of Adult Education), and it all went from there.

But in the end, it wasn’t so much what got me into adult education, but rather who. My mom had my older sister and my brother when she was 17, and she gave up. She persevered to get her GED and went on to earn her bachelor’s, master’s, and had just completed her doctorate before moving on last September. Having him as an example really inspired me not only to enter into adult education, but also into the period of education.

Did you assume that the same teaching skills would be retained? How did you have to adapt your teaching methods?

In fact, I was surprised to see, just at the level of pedagogy and strategy, how little I had to adapt. I’ve always been a visual-kinesthetic type teacher, and I know that’s how everyone learns. I had to adjust some things here and there, but eventually I had a bit more license to make things more relevant and exciting, and that’s always the key to good teaching and learning, that the student be 6 or 60 years old.

How do you get to know your students?

I usually open the year by giving them a writing assignment right away – an autobiographical essay. It not only allows me to assess their skills, but more importantly gives me a window into them as people. As the year progresses, I continue to pay attention to them throughout the year and find many ways to incorporate their likes and dreams into the lessons. I also share a bit of myself in the conversation because there has to be that when building relationships with students. One way I connect with my GED students is to tell the story of my mother, who dropped out of college herself as a teenage mother, but persevered to get her GED and eventually earn her Ph.D. and become a university professor.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

There are so many that I love. In ELA, I really enjoy teaching arguments, assertions, and proofs for the GED essay. It teaches them to really analyze and break down an argument and assess the strength of the claim and the evidence, and we see how that applies to everyday life. In social studies, we are currently completing an economics unit, and students are developing business plans and making “shark tank” style presentations. I like this because it not only makes them think about economic principles, but they are also persuasive in speaking and writing, incorporating data and figures, and doing a lot of research. It touches on all subjects, and it is extremely relevant because it is totally student-centred. I also enjoy teaching about government and even giving them a bit of history that they may not have learned in school before.

What’s going on in the community that affects what’s going on in your classroom?

The vast majority of my students are parents themselves, with children in [Detroit public schools] and other school systems. I have a social studies lesson where they imagine they’re running for mayor and pick one major issue to focus on as the focus of their campaign, and even got a few students on a roundtable with the former Councilman Roy McCalister.

Since the majority of my students are parents with children in the school system, I continually implore them to get involved by attending their school and council meetings, not only as parents but as students of the adult education program. They have unique perspectives that can benefit them, their children’s schools, and their families.

Tell us about a memorable moment—good or bad—when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Initially, I was a die-hard believer in deadlines and behavior – I still am to some degree. But when I learned that a particular student was going through home and yet I was coming to class every day, it taught me that sometimes grace is needed. I remember this every day with my adult students. Despite their responsibilities and the things they face, they get there every day. So I owe them the best.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I always knew it would be hard work, but I didn’t know how hard it would be. Add to that, I wasn’t fully aware of all the rules, regulations, and rigamarole that plague academia. You have to do it; you can not do this. But I find ways to stick to those rules while still being creative and making my lessons relevant.

Recommend a book that has helped you become a better teacher.

I remember my mother giving me the book “The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children” by Gloria Ladson-Billings. It really reinforced a lot of my vision of teaching and finding the best in every student, whether adult or child.

What’s the best teaching advice you’ve ever received?

If you really have a passion for it, go ahead and stick to it, and don’t tolerate anyone trying to detract from you or your profession. Hang on; It’s getting better. Read, read, READ. Always work at your craft. Network with other educators YOU CLICK with (I have to underline this part). A good administrator and supportive colleagues are worth their weight in gold. If you can confirm it – say you just gave a good lesson or got recognized for something – then honk your horn and talk about your business. Never play small, never settle for less than you want, and always give your best, so you can give your best to your students.

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at

Leave a Reply