Robin Miller Young always knew that she wanted a career making positive differences for children and families.
How to meet and exceed that goal, however, has evolved continually since the beginning of her pursuit – and, unsurprisingly, another chapter is soon to unfold in the wake of her July 1 retirement from the Early Childhood Education faculty of the NIU Department of Special and Early Education.
“I’d like to be on the front lines, working to ensure that all young children achieve essential early academic and social-emotional goals. Creating ‘blended’ classrooms where all kinds of children, including those with and without disabilities, learn early academic and social problem-solving skills together is an evidence-based practice that I want to promote nationwide,” says Young, a double-alumna of the NIU College of Education alumna who joined the faculty in 2016.
“I don’t know the exact nature, or with which agency or organization I might work, but my plans are to continue moving toward greater national-level activism so early learning programs include multiple levels of support. These differing levels of support would ensure that children develop skills necessary for success in schools and community settings,” she adds. “I’d like to be part of that effort.”
Young’s professional years began with a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and a teaching certificate.
But her story truly begins in New Jersey, where she was born just three months before her father left the U.S. Air Force.
Robert Miller then moved his family, including his wife, Ann, to Michigan, where he took a position at Ford Motor Co.’s corporate headquarters in Dearborn, working until retirement as a purchasing agent for safety mechanisms that include mirrors, seatbelts and airbags.
Although Mr. Miller was a proud alum of Michigan State University, his daughter found her place at Central Michigan University.
During a course on the psychology of reading, she and her classmates worked to determine the best of two approaches to teaching literacy. At the same time, she was taking a course on experimental methods.
“I thought, ‘If we could just apply what I’m learning about how to set up research to better examine the effectiveness of the instructional methods we are learning in this class, we would really be able to move this field forward,’ ” she says.
“From that time onward, I kept looking at how to combine my interests in research and gathering information to make good curricular, instructional and classroom environmental decisions to educate young children well.”
Meanwhile, Young began thinking about a way to create better outcomes for high school students by reaching them with interventions before kindergarten to instill “what we now call the right dispositions and attitudes.”
She then realized that she could multiply her impact on K-12 students by staying at CMU to earn a master’s degree in psychology and a specialist degree in school psychology.
“Rather than being a teacher for just one child, or in one classroom, if I were to pursue a career in school psychology, I would be assigned to support an entire building,” she says, “where I could be on teams with my teacher colleagues and others and work collaboratively to make improvements across the whole school.”
Young’s first job with those degrees in hand came in Louisiana, where a cultural backlash against people who were native French speakers offered an excellent training ground.
Colleagues helped their eager newcomer to understand that her strong preparation in psychology and education was only part of the equation necessary for effectiveness; she also needed to ask questions of children and parents to hear their voices and see through their eyes.
One boy she remembers vividly.
His name was Anthony, Young says, and “his mother felt like he would be better served by moving him into the foster care system because she couldn’t meet all his developmental needs.”
“I kept trying to say to people, ‘But we can meet his educational needs,’ ” Young says, “and I needed someone to say, ‘Robin, she’s got more to worry about with that young boy than just what educational needs he has. She does not have a strong family support system, and she doesn’t have the same resources as other mothers would have. She knows best how to meet his comprehensive needs”
That heightened sense of empathy came with her to Illinois, where Young and her husband, Rich, the Community Development director of a local municipality, soon relocated in suburban Wheaton.
As she served families through the LaGrange Area Department of Special Education and, later, the School Association for Special Education in DuPage County, Young discovered another means of accomplishing that mission.
“The people who have the real power to make differences in schools – to put that research into place – are really principals,” she says.
She enrolled in NIU’s M.S.Ed. in Educational Administration program in 1985, earning that degree in 1989.
“I made a good choice to attend Northern,” she says. “I found that the breadth of knowledge of the regular faculty members and the Educational Administration adjuncts – real, hands-on principals and other administrators – was really outstanding.”
Young became an assistant principal at a middle school in the Indian Prairie district during a fortuitous time, as that philosophy and structure were replacing the junior high model.
“Middle schools are much better situated to address that changing social, emotional, physical and cognitive development of youngsters as they move from age 12 to 13, 14, 15,” she says. “I think I was in a good place to support the faculty in understanding how those changes impact how we could best serve middle schoolers and their families.”
Working in Indian Prairie also afforded the opportunity “to engage with faculty members to identify what they perceived to be their strengths, for me to identify some additional strengths and,” she says, “to get some sound administrative practices in place, not just managerial practices but true leadership practices around how you engage teachers and other professionals around curricular development and community engagement”
A later leadership position as an assistant principal at a preschool prompted her to seek an academic foundation in the developmental trajectories of young children as they progress toward kindergarten.
That knowledge was available back at NIU, where in 1999 she was in the final class of students to earn doctorates from the Department of Special Education (SEED). Her classmates included Toni Van Laarhoven and Jesse “Woody” Johnson.
Young’s next steps seemed obvious.
Having interviewed, hired, mentored and supported teachers in schools, she was ready to shift her focus to preservice teachers. She also was ready to conduct research.
First, though, she returned to Indian Prairie, where she provided doctoral-level leadership, served as a Student Services coordinator and helped to facilitate university research projects, including those of NIU Professor Emeritus Lynnette Chandler.
She also started teaching courses for NIU as an adjunct for the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment (“Introduction to Research”) and for SEED (“Working with Families of Young Children with Disabilities”), which continued until 2013..
In 2013, her own career in a full-time, tenure-track position in higher education began as the director of Early Childhood Education at Rockford University thanks to a connection from Maylan Dunn-Kenney, coordinator of Early Childhood Education at NIU before her own retirement.
Three years later, Young arrived at Gabel Hall, where a poster-size version of her photo already graced the walls in a display of accomplished alumni.
At NIU, she made sure to remind her students that they are “the future leaders in our field,” words she spoke two or three times during each class meeting. She supervised student-teachers, guiding them through a process of self-reflection to measure their growth and their ability to draw and activate knowledge from their courses.
She also proudly co-edited “Multi-Tiered Systems of Support for Young Children: Driving Change in Early Education,” which presents the wisdom and research findings of more than 25 experts – including Young, who co-authored three of the 13 chapters.
Its publication “put a book into the field that summarizes, and provides a lot of detail around, how our candidates ought to be aware of ways they can use a system to improve the outcomes for young children and families.”
Her legacy, she says, is her career-long advocacy of educators who remember why they entered this profession.
“We need to maintain whatever roles we have,” she says, “whether we are a teacher in a classroom or whether we have a leadership role and have some flexibility to help conduct research with university-based partners, so that we can continue learning what practices are the most effective and what practices we should set aside because we don’t really have data that show they’re working well.”
That begins early, she says.
“It’s about making sure that we’re asking the right questions in an assessment process so that we are leading properly into what kind of intervention we then should be engaging in,” Young says. “Across the country now, too many courses are being taught around assessment with not a specific link to how that assessment will lead to better decision-making.”
Young believes her graduates are equipped to change the narrative.
Her Early Childhood Education courses on assessment emphasized the importance of knowing what decisions will come from the data, how much data is needed and the best sources of that data, whether it’s children, families, teachers or others providing services.
And, despite the unusual end of the Spring 2020 semester, she is sure that she made an impact.
Students created a video for her to salute her passion, compliment her trove of personal stories with lessons inside them, report that “school districts will know that we are young men and women who are respectful of families’ perspectives and understanding of their assets and strengths” and acknowledge her encouragement to make themselves available to their principals or other supervisors for participation on task forces that create positive change.
Their professor, meanwhile, will use retirement to make herself more accessible to her family. Her mom and dad, ages 90 and 92 respectively, are still alive and living in Texas.
“I came to realize last fall that I was being called more often to partner with my siblings in caring for my parents,” she says, “in sending cards and packages, fielding medical and financial questions and being available 24/7.”
She and her husband, who celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary in June, also hope to travel – and trips to Virginia are always on the itinerary.”
Son Matthew, 37, lives in Arlington, where he owns several businesses that help companies manage cybersecurity risks, and daughter Meagan, 33, is a high school social studies teacher in the Manassas area.