How a Teacher Learned to Teach by Becoming a Student of her Students

Photo by Mark J. Terrill/AP

Erin Gruwell was an idealistic young student teacher when she walked into her classroom at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. Gruwell, who we interviewed for a chapter our book, told us that she approached teaching with a lot of assumptions. She believed that with her good intentions and great enthusiasm she could compel her students to embrace the classics. But arriving that first day in her pearls and polka dot dress she was met with an unexpected reality: a class of apathetic and hostile racially-divided remedial students. No one accorded her respect. A paper airplane of her carefully planned syllabus whizzed by her head and as the bell rang she heard a student say, “I give her five days.” Gruwell told us,

“It became painfully obvious that every theory I had learned in my graduate courses paled in comparison to the raw lessons I would learn in my urban classroom.”

Facing failure, Gruwell could have retreated into apathy herself, like so many of her fellow teachers at Wilson High. But instead she told us,

“I became a student of my students…. I had to learn to speak their language instead of expecting them to learn mine.”

Although becoming a student of her students was not an overnight or painless process, the very simple concept changed everything. Eventually, Gruwell not only won over her class by creating a learning environment designed specifically for them, but helped them become the people that she—and they—never imagined possible. And after she coaxed them into writing about their lives, their stories became the bestselling book, The Freedom Writers Diary.

But we all know that letting go of assumptions can be challenging. Without the comfort of our preconceptions we can feel as if we are in a vacuum. It takes humility to admit that we don’t know as much as we think we know. And taking the next step, learning to understand others, can be just as difficult, whether it’s the retailer learning his customers’ needs, the politician studying her constituents or the manager working to know his employees. But the example of Gruwell’s ultimate success at understanding her students is something that we can all strive for.

Erin Gruwell Fact: All 150 of Gruwell’s students graduated from high school, many the first in their families to do so. And along with Gruwell, several of those students formed The Freedom Writers Foundation dedicated to changing the education system one classroom at a time.