November 21, 2018

Taming Dangerous Minds: An Interview with Ashley Plushnik

When I was 20, I hardly wanted to change the world. If memory serves me correctly, I was too busy studying, working and partying to care much about anyone else.

Not everyone at 20 had my attitude.

Meet Ashely Plushnik, a 20 year old education major who is a literacy tutor for inner city kids. To say that Ashely is changing the world might be an overstatement but she is certainly changing the world for her kids.

A native of Battle Creek, Michigan, Ashely could have pursued math and science (she attended a well regarded magnet high school for just that) but instead, she chose teaching.

Ashely’s story resonates with me because of my own experience with great teachers.

My younger brother Paul was one of those “troubled” kids who went to special classes because he was a “problem.”

His teachers gave up on him. Everyone told him he would always be behind and never amount to anything — except one.

LouAnne Johnson was a presence. Even though I never met her personally, she used to call our house to check up on Paul regularly.

Her dedication made an impact on my brother and all of her students. She even wrote a book about her experiences. That book turned into a movie. Maybe you have seen it, Dangerous Minds starring Michelle Pfeiffer.

Ashely reminds me of Ms. Johnson — strong willed, caring and not willing to give up — exactly what an endurance leader should be.

I sat down with Ashely to talk with her about how she stays motivated, how she motivates her kids (and others) and why she chooses such a difficult job.


Jarie Bolander: What draws you to teaching?


Ashley Plushnik: I just like to help kids. I think it stems from my experiences in grammar and middle school where the teachers I had were no help at all. Thankfully, I was self-motivated but the students who struggled just fell behind.


JB: Was that your experience in High School as well?


AP: Actually, no. I went to a magnet school for math and science and that was totally different. Teachers cared about you and pushed you to be the best you could be. They set high expectations from day one.

It was at the magnet school that I realized success in school had a lot to do with caring teachers.


JB: What was the ah ha moment when you knew you wanted to teach?


AP: I think it was my first year as a literacy tutor. The first 6 months were total hell. I cried everyday because kids where throwing chairs, being disruptive and not listening too me. I was really discouraged. When you are discouraged, it usually means you are doing something wrong. So I sought out some advice.

It turns out I was just too much of a push over. I did not demand respect or give them boundaries. I cared a lot but not enough to teach them how to be successful. I realized I needed to give them attention, structure, discipline and set some real boundaries.

Once I did that, things turned around. The class focused and started to excel. Now, I learned that those boundaries need to be set early, within the first two weeks, or the year will be a struggle. It’s a struggle to begin with but that makes it more of one.


JB: It sounds like these kids are a handful. What’s their background?


AP: Most are from the inner city projects. They are in an environment of poverty, drugs and gangs. Most come in with the attitude that I’ll be dead by 18. This coming from a second grader. It’s sad.

They generally come from homes where mom and/or dad have either dropped out or can’t read. So, their expectations are pretty low.

Traditionally, when they come to school, they don’t get the attention they need either. Most people just don’t want to invest in what they think is a losing cause. That’s the saddest thing of all.

All these kids really need is attention and direction. They have so much potential and it’s just squandered.

In fact, the only reason I got this school was because I didn’t know any better. My fellow literacy tutors did some research and picked the private schools and left me with the inner city schools. It actually turned out to be a blessing.


JB: Doesn’t sound like a blessing to me. How do you motivate someone that comes from such a bleak environment?


AP: First, you set high expectations from day one. You earn their trust. You hangout in their neighborhood. You get to know their parents. You show you care.

It’s actually pretty simple but takes a lot of patience and hard work.

The kids respond to leading by example. If you say be on time and then your late, they will be late. If you say I’ll show up to your event and then don’t show up, that sends the wrong message.

You want them to do as you do and always keep it positive.


JB: So, lead by example and be positive but how do you stay positive and keep them positive with all the struggles they are going through?


AP: Being positive is just a mindset. When a bad situation takes place, you just turn it around and ask for the positive outcome. If someone does not know the answer, you ask someone else. Then you go back and ask “So, what’s the answer?” Then, they can answer.

Even situations where a kid does something bad can be positive. For example, some kid hits another kid. You have to explain why being hit is not right by asking if they would want to be hit. The answer is always no. So you use that. Turn it around and have them understand that hitting is bad because they don’t want to be hit.

Then, they must ask for forgiveness from the person they hit. Not from me, mind you. I was not harmed but the other kid was. That way, they see that you can deal with a difficult situation in a positive way.

Leading by example is another one. It’s just not me that leads. The kids lead by teaching others. Some just naturally want to help. So you use that to your advantage. You tell them to help other children, even in other grades. It shows them that they can have an impact and that others want and need their help.


JB: There must be problem kids that just make you crazy.


AP: Of course, there are challenging kids but you have to adjust your approach to what the kid needs. It’s like individual intervention for 20 students.

I do put them in groups but in the end, you need to know what makes each kid tick and how to motivate them.


JB: Have you been able to make an impact on these kids?


AP: Certainly. Their reading scores have improved dramatically as well as their attitudes. Some come in below their grade level and most leave 1-2 grade levels above. It’s amazing watching them finally get it.


JB: That’s impressive. For the rest of us, who don’t have to deal with these challenging circumstances, how would you recommend we take on challenges? It’s pretty clear that, in this environment, you have overcome a tremendous amount.


AP: I just try and stop making excuses and just do something. Put the whining on hold and deal with what you have. You will make mistakes. Lots and lots of them but that’s fine. Make them and move on.

It’s important to adjust, adapt and overcome the obstacles in your way. If you let it get to you, you will be defeated.

Look for the little wins. Those will inspire you to keep doing.

When you get discouraged, ask for help. You will be amazed as to who will help you out.


JB: Ashley, thanks so much for telling your story. It’s great to see someone making a difference.


AP: Your welcome.


Ashley is a true endurance leader. She takes on challenges and overcomes them by adapting to her environment, staying positive and not giving up.

We can learn a lot from Ashley and the teachers like her. It’s inspiring to see people make an impact and stay positive in the process.


Take-a-way: All it take is a little bit of dedication and hard work to achieve your goals and inspire others to achieve theirs.