Title I conference speaker emphasizes the power of teachers

“Positioning others to flourish” is one of Manny Scott’s missions in life.

He knew the audience of teachers and administrators at the division’s fourth annual Title I Summer Conference shared the same mission, though he acknowledged working in public education has its challenges.

“There are some of you who are seriously thinking about walking away from this work,” he told educators during his “Power of One” presentation. “My hope today is to give you at least one reason to stay where you are. Even on your worst day, you can still be a student’s best hope.”

He spoke from experience. His “worst days” included a childhood of hunger, homelessness, humiliation in school, drugs, gang violence and witnessing the murders of his mother and a close friend.

“How did I go from being a high school dropout with a 0.6 GPA to an honor roll student?” Scott asked. “Because of people like you.”

Scott found his best hope in people he identified by name: a high school assistant principal, several coaches, support staff and one high school English teacher, among others.

On one particular bad day for Scott, it was a favorite “lunch lady” who called his name when she spotted him walking across the high school’s field to give up on the day and perhaps much more.

“You are going to be great one day. I see it in your eyes. Now go back to class and keep trying,” he recalled her saying.

“Lunch ladies, bus drivers, secretaries – they don’t show up on transcripts but they are just as important. Honor them,” Scott encouraged the audience.

His experience in Erin Gruwell’s English class was life-changing and was the subject of the 2007 film “Freedom Writers.” The movie was based on Gruwell’s book, “The Freedom Writers Diary,” which published journal writings by Scott and his classmates; students who had been written off by others as unteachable or below average. They became the Freedom Writers through Gruwell’s encouragement, dedication and relentless desire to connect with her students.

A connection, Scott said, that is critical for all teachers to make in order to reach the unreachable.

“You will never reach anyone if you vilify what’s important to them,” said Scott.

“Become a student of your students,” he implored. “Become an anthropologist of your students. Seek to understand them. Keep showing up and trying something else.”

Gruwell did just that, said Scott.

He told the audience that “Ms. G” showed up day after day after day. She connected Shakespeare to the music of their lives. She kept her classroom open until midnight to give them a safe space. She greeted them at the door each day with openness, love and acceptance. She told them: “Everyone in this room has a voice and I’m going to help you find it because the world needs to hear it.”

Gruwell also told Scott that he had “a gift for words” and encouraged him to apply for college. When he was accepted to her dream school — University of California, Berkeley — he still had his doubts about higher education. “One of the only reasons I said yes was because it seemed like it meant something to her,” he reflected.

And when Scott earned his college degree, his high school English teacher suggested graduate school. She told him to think of the example he could set for struggling students.

“Keep going for those kids at the bottom. Show them the power of education.” he recalled Gruwell telling him.

Scott wasn’t the only student in Gruwell’s class who graduated and made the most of his education. He noted the variety of professional fields in which his classmates are working today and shared that one notorious troublemaker, who had more than 400 referrals in high school, was named Teacher of the Year at the same school. Continuing to make Ms. G proud, Scott shared that he recently completed all his coursework for a doctoral degree.

“I share this not to impress you. I share this to impress upon you…the power you have on another life,” he said.

“I am not the exception,” said Scott. “[My classmates] are not the exception.”

“Ms. G was the exception.”

Again, by name, he identified the other “exceptions” he who made a difference in his life: the teachers, the coaches, the lunch lady.

“I’m standing here because people believed in me and helped me,” Scott said. “Sometimes you have to believe in someone else’s belief in you until you believe it yourself.”

“Your voice has power,” he reminded educators.

The power of one.

To see more highlights from the Title I Summer Conference, view the video below.

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