Junior Achievement of Central Ohio's 2020 Educator of the Year is Taraja Shephard Allen, a school counselor in Columbus City Schools (CCS). Taraja is passionate about what she does, because she loves having "an opportunity to help my students become the best versions of themselves."
Taraja, please introduce yourself. Why are you passionate about the work you do?
My name is Taraja Shephard Allen. This is my ninth year as a school counselor in Columbus City Schools. I love being a school counselor because I have an opportunity to help my students become the best versions of themselves. I love working in CCS because I believe in being an integral part of my community. I am a proud CCS graduate from Linden McKinley High School. I obtained my undergraduate degrees from Ohio University and my Master’s in School Counseling from the University of Dayton. Can you explain your school’s relationship with Junior Achievement of Central Ohio?
When I was at Linden STEM Academy as an elementary counselor, I had the pleasure of helping students with participating in a JA BizTown event. It was so amazing seeing students participate in a project-based learning format to re-create a functioning small town where they role/played citizens; working at jobs, running companies, exchange goods, services, ideas and even producing a newspaper.
I was so thrilled when I became a middle school counselor to know that my students would be able to continue partnering with local business leaders through Junior Achievement. The program was expanded to weekly project-based learning in the classroom or my students had opportunities to collaborate with their peers and have a more in-depth interaction with the volunteer mentors to learn about financial literacy, entrepreneurship and the soft skills needed to be successful in the world of work.
In the last few years we became more creative with our partnership between our teachers, students and business leaders. We began to have a JA in a Day. It was highly successful because we were able to host over 60 volunteers from Chase Bank to run a variety of workshops with our students similar to “shark tank” where they start the day identifying a common need in our society and ended the day with business plan and live pitch to their classmates. It’s pretty serious; awards were given out. Students loved having an opportunity to really see their own ideas manifest from concept to business venture, in just a single day. This model was very successful to us we maximized our time in one day versus one period of a day a week for several weeks. We were able to better sustain the commitment from our students, teachers and our volunteers by just asking for 1 full day. Chase returned for a second year as this truncated timetable was a great model for their busy staff of volunteers too.
Why do you continue to partner with Junior Achievement?
As a school counselor, I’m always looking for ways to help my students explore various career pathways. Junior Achievement brings the business community to our classrooms. We introduce them to growing careers by letting them meet people in the field, sharing their experiences and giving their perspective and real life tips on what they can to do now to prepare for the future. They learn practical life skills such as how to earn, save and invest money as a teenager.
What do you think is the most important thing that a school can provide to a student to help them succeed?
Practical knowledge is key. Most students want to know how does what they learning apply to their current situation. Why is learning this important? We have to make learning applicable not just theoretical. We have to engage them in finding the solutions to their own problems in a fun way. That seek and find challenge make them curious and keep them motivated into becoming lifelong learners.
What do you see as current obstacles for young people?
For many of my students, there are less opportunities to be exposed to and explore a variety of career pathways. They only see traditional people working in traditional roles. They need to see a variety of people working in careers that they thought were off limits to them and be prepared for ones that don’t exist yet. They need a safe space and a chance to follow various career pathways, test out different professional identities; so they can find one that fits and is worth pursuing even when it’s tough and they feel like they want to give up.
Does JA help students overcome these obstacles at all?
JA always brings great volunteers into our buildings who are well trained and are not shy around our students. They are experienced and knowledgeable in their fields. They are ready to answer the tough questions and often break some stereotypes. They help push our students to think outside the box and practice being a business savvy version of themselves.