The final day of the Jostens Renaissance National Conference was Saturday, July 13th and “The Freedom Writer,” Erin Gruwell’s, closing presentation was on point! She shared her amazing story about how she worked with 150 challenging students to completely transform their lives. It was apparent that she really got to know her students, connected with them on a highly emotional level, and created a collaborative, safe learning environment for them to succeed.
Her story was a reminder that mentoring relationships are messy. It’s hard work and there are many obstacles to overcome. However, if the goal is to significantly impact the life of another person, then it’s worth it.
She used the art of writing to tear down walls and open doors for students. Her story reminded me of a Challenge Day activity called, Cross The Line. This activity helps participants find common ground and it provides a visual of how connected we truly are by shared experiences. Our Athletic Director at Gahanna Lincoln High School, Justin Sanford, was instrumental in bringing Challenge Day to GLHS. We held a Challenge Day for three years and it did wonders for enhancing a positive school climate. Students, parents, staff, and community members still talk about how Challenge Day transformed their lives.
Listening to Erin’s story and watching brief clips from the movie, “Freedom Writers,” reminded me of Todd Wittaker’s phrase, “It’s people, not programs,” or Dr. James Comer famous line, “No significant learning takes place without a significant relationship.” We all have an “Erin Gruwell” experience with students. We are reminded of these stories when we refer to the file of the letters from former students we receive. If you don’t keep a file of these letters or cards, then I strongly encourage you to start today! We all have that one success story that brings tears to our eyes when we think about how we’ve made a difference to someone.
I recently ran into a former athlete I coached, who is now 27 years old and doing extremely well. He pulled me aside to talk. He said,
“You may not remember this, but when I was a freshmen (he was a starter on the Varsity football team as a freshmen), you walked up to me and told me I should run track because it would humble me. You said I hadn’t experienced loss yet, but running track would help me grow as a person and understand humility. I never forgot that and I thank you for caring enough to tell me.”
He was an extremely gifted athlete, he was charismatic, and he was a natural leader. I also noticed how we interacted with some of the students in the hallways or on the field and was a bit concerned. I wasn’t his specific position coach, but we had a close enough relationship where I thought he would be receptive. Thirteen years later, I guess it worked!
As I think about the quickly approaching school year, my goal is to reestablish positive relationships with members of my staff. I’ve allowed “programs” or other excuses to get in the way of relationships. More candidly, relationships have not been a priority and it has cost me.
As educators, stealing a phrase Seth Godin used in the book, Linchpin, “We have a platform to share our art.” Our “art” is making a difference in the lives of others. As we quickly approach the start of another school year, let’s remember to use our platform (classroom, school building, cafeteria, front desk, attendance office, or guidance office) to establish significant relationships with others, set high expectations, and make a difference, more specifically, a positive difference, in someone’s life.
“It’s people, not programs.”
Stealing the 2014 Jostens Renaissance National Conference theme, let’s find “joy in the journey” of being educators!