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10 Remarkable Lessons From an Unconventional School Teacher



Image Credit: Erin Gruwell

Erin Gruwell is the founder of The Freedom Writers Foundation, created to inspire and show young people a better way of life. An educator by profession, she has worked with high school students and inspired change through her unique teaching methods.

The movie Freedom Writers is based on her teaching experience that led to the creation of the Freedom Writers Foundation. It’s an inspirational movie about how 150 students turned their lives around, who today are inspiring others to do the same.

Here are 10 practical lessons from the movie that can change your own life:

1. Be relevant

The education system worldwide is a broken one and most of what is taught doesn’t add value to students’ lives. In some ways, it’s designed to create slaves of its recipients that never learn to think for themselves. Only when Erin Gruwell connected with her students at Woodrow Wilson at a deeper level, was she able to make a difference. 

By altering her curriculum and teaching what they could relate to, she finally got their attention and made an impact. Her students came alive and started to view their lives and situations in a more positive light.

2. Writing is therapeutic

The common factors among Erin’s students were emotional pain and insecurity that was often expressed through violence and hatred. Gang violence was a way of life in Long Beach California during those times between different races. Such a life felt hopeless for the young people who saw no bright future for themselves.

This was compounded by seeing their friends getting killed through gang violence. Erin came up with an idea for her students to journal whatever they were feeling. She got them journals and as they wrote, it became a healing experience that helped them see things differently.

“I realized if you can change a classroom, you can change a community, and if you change enough communities, you can change the world.” – Erin Gruwell

3. Life isn’t just about money

It’s a deception that success in life is mainly about making a lot of money and living a flashy lifestyle. Most people spend most of their lives chasing after that dream but find it doesn’t bring lasting happiness. Erin’s dad had wanted her to take up a better-paying career instead of teaching which he felt was too menial for her.

Real success has to do with adding value and making a difference in other people’s lives. If you do it right and consistently, avenues to make money and have a better lifestyle will open up. Today Erin runs The Freedom Writers Foundation which empowers other teachers to make a difference in their students’ lives. Her track record has awarded her various opportunities to share her story through various platforms.

4. Balance is important

Given the impact she has made all these years, it’s easy to tell that she loves teaching. The sad part about her story is that her success came at the expense of her marriage. Her husband often felt neglected because Erin spent most of her time with her students, forgetting to make time for him too.

Success isn’t worth it if you can’t share it with those closest to you. It’s often a challenge for highly motivated people to strike a balance but it must be done intentionally nonetheless. They may not have been a good match but divorce, however, is never pretty. Maybe she could have struck a balance between her husband and work and still be married today.

5. Believe in your dream

The most powerful dreams often don’t make sense before they become a reality. Erin’s motivation for taking up the teaching job at Woodrow Wilson High School was the integration program. Most of the teachers felt it was a lie and impossible to achieve due to all the gang violence.

Erin went the extra mile many times to break new ground and show her students what was possible. Your God-given dreams only make sense to you until you show others that they can be real. You therefore shouldn’t get discouraged if people misunderstand you.

6. Turn negatives into positives

The painful experiences of Erin’s students culminated in them publishing The Freedom Writers Diary, a compilation of their journals. Having read the book myself, it was painful just reading about what they went through as young people. On the bright side, myself and others who read it, got inspired to overcome the obstacles in our own lives.

The sales from their book were channeled towards funding their college education after graduating high school. It goes to show that even your mistakes can be used for something positive. Those same students went on to work with Erin in the Freedom Writers Foundation to share their message with students around the country.

7. Lack of experience doesn’t have to stop you

Erin’s designation at Woodrow Wilson was her first teaching job and she only spent four years there. She accomplished a lot more than other teachers who had been there for decades. Experience certainly helps but doesn’t have to be the only thing that qualifies you to take on big assignments.

Learn from those in your field but don’t use their success as a measure for what you can accomplish. You’re unique and that means you can do certain things in ways that others can’t. Bring your flavor to the table and see the beautiful things that you can create.

8. There’s more that unites us than divides us

Despite their cultural differences, Erin’s students came to realize that they were the same at the core. The hatred they had towards each other blinded them to this truth for a long time until they let it go. It took Erin’s guidance to help them see that and foster a sense of unity among them.

The more united people become, the more they can accomplish together. On a personal level, think about the people you somewhat despise and choose to see their positive side. The differences serve to help you see things from a different perspective while working towards a common goal.

“Be the kind of people that have enough passion to change the world. If we let ourselves be fire, thunder, or lightning, we could alter everything.” – Erin Gruwell

9. Potential is immeasurable

I doubt that Erin could have imagined what she would accomplish with her students that society had written off. For a long time, it was always expected that most students would never graduate; either because they’d give up or die through gang violence. All of Erin’s students went on to graduate from high school which was a tremendous achievement. In the same way, you can’t predict what you can accomplish until you step out in faith and pursue your God-given dreams. 

10. Be true to yourself

At the end of the day, Erin Gruwell lives a fulfilling life because she’s pursued what she was created for. God has a great plan for your life and even if it doesn’t always make sense, believe in it. You sell yourself short when you allow other people to create your life for you, and it brings regrets.

Sija Mafu is an Online Enthusiast and Personal Development Fan. His vision is to see young people take responsibility for their lives and create bright futures for themselves, their families and society at large. He runs the Motivated2Inspire blog to inspire young people to pursue their life purpose. Also check out his free training courses to set you up for a life of success.

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