Convocation for Worthington Schools signals the beginning of our new school year. It is the one time each year where we have all 1,250 Worthington Schools employees in the same room at the same time. One of the great honors of my position is having the opportunity to speak with our team at Convocation. This year I will be joined in our keynote by our Chief Academic Officer, Angie Adrean, Worthingway Middle School Principal, Nathan Kellenberger and Certified Personnel Analyst, Diane Shadi. We will each be sharing stories about how words have shaped our lives both positively and negatively. Here’s our talk for this year. Our hope is that it sets the tone for our interactions…
I’ve titled my talk for this year “Your Words Matter.” It’s important for all of us to keep in mind that as an employee in Worthington Schools what you tell people about our school district, what you tell people about our students, and what you tell people about your particular school, is what our community members believe. Survey after survey tells us that the number one way that community members receive information about our schools is from talking to our employees. So, what you say matters in our community. Your words matter!
More importantly, your words matter when you talk with our kids. The words you speak will likely stick with a child for the rest of their lives. The words you speak will quite possibly change the trajectory of a student’s life.
It was the summer of 1962 in Linden, Ohio. You likely know the Linden area as just east of the State Fairgrounds and what is at least for a little while longer Crew stadium. Officially, Linden is a neighborhood in the northeastern part of Columbus. It extends south to north from Eighth Avenue to E. Cooke and Ferris Roads and west to east from the Conrail tracks to Joyce Avenue/Westerville Road. The neighborhood is officially bounded on the south, west, and east by Conrail-operated railroads. Hudson Street divides the neighborhood into North and South Linden.
In 1962, Linden was a middle-class neighborhood full of one and two story homes built to house the generation of families returning from World War II. The houses were mostly between 900 and 1500 square feet and air conditioning was not yet a thing. Kids born in Linden in 1945 had a mostly carefree childhood. They played softball at the local parks and rec and they walked most anywhere they wanted. Often when the State Fair was going on throughout August they would climb the fence and spend the day fishing in the natural resources ponds. Dads went to work during the day and moms were at home. There was no such thing as a helicopter parent. Kids left their homes in the morning and came home when it got dark.
One of the boys at Linden-McKinley High School grew up in that exact scenario. Fishing, playing whatever sport was in season and generally trying to stay out of any serious trouble. His dad was a railroad engineer and used to walk the tracks next to his trains with a set of brass knuckles to use for protection. His mom was home but she could be distant. His parents played cards in the evening and drank on the porch. The kids in the house were free to pursue what they wanted. There was no talk of preparing for their future. They lived like many other families did at that time.
This particular boy was a “C” student. He could handle his school work but no one was pushing him to achieve more in school and he did just enough to get by. In the early summer of 1962 that abruptly changed. Mrs. Evelyn Cummings was a guidance counselor at Linden-McKinley High School. She’d spent her whole career working with boys just like this one. He was signed up for a full set of classes for his senior year, but they were average classes and he was certainly moving through high school without any discernible direction. She had watched this boy walk the hallways for three years and she felt like he had much more potential than he exhibited. In Evelyn’s mind, it was time for that to change.
Without prompting, Evelyn decided this boy needed to go to college. And, if that was going to happen he would need to reschedule his senior year classes. What he was signed up for was not going to cut it. So, it was a hot summer day in early June of 1962, in a school with no air-conditioning when Evelyn Cummings called the boy down to her office to review his schedule. He wasn’t sure what she wanted but while he was walking down the hall he was fairly certain he was in trouble for something. He just wasn’t sure what…
Evelyn asked the boy to sit down. A fan circulated the hot air around the room and there was only one chair in the office. He moved a pile of papers to the floor and sat timidly. He still wasn’t sure what he had done wrong. Evelyn didn’t beat around the bush. She had a mission to accomplish. She began quickly and told the boy that she had been watching him for years. He was full of potential and was much smarter than his grades would indicate. She told him that he was going to college after high school and that to do so he was going to have to change the classes he had scheduled for his senior year.
The boy sat there trying to concentrate. It sounded good, he thought. Apparently, he wasn’t actually in trouble. That was positive. But, college? Did she say I should be going to college? No one had ever mentioned college before and it wasn’t something he had ever personally considered. But… she thinks I’m college material? Quickly, he was sitting there with visions of fraternity row and college girls. As these visions played out in his head Evelyn plowed forward. She promptly informed him that this schedule would not cut it if he was going to go to college and he should be planning to go to college. Without his consent, she changed his courses to a college prep load and insisted that he plan to attend Ohio State after graduation.
Here’s the thing…Evelyn said he could, Evelyn said he should….and so he did.
It was 1986 and I was a misplaced junior enrolled in Calculus class. Yes, I was veryyyyyy misplaced. Not only was I taking a Calculus class during my junior year, it was a Calculus class with one of the most respected, most demanding and extremely intimidating teachers at Pickerington High School, Mrs. Tyson.
Like any other class, I was assigned to a front row seat, right next to Mrs. Tyson’s desk. With both my first and last name starting with an A, I never knew what it was like to sit in the back of the classroom and if there was one class I wanted to do this in, it would be Calculus with Mrs. Tyson.
I still believe that Calculus was not a “choice” class for me, but rather one in which my previous teacher thought I should take to “challenge” myself. Well, it did just that and Mrs. Tyson knew this from day one. Remember, I got to sit right up front every day – right beside her desk.
Within the first week of class, Mrs. Tyson quickly realized that much of my note-taking was really doodling in the margins of my paper or finishing a sketchbook assignment that was due the next class period for my favorite class, Art.
Like most of us, if it’s difficult, we avoid it. I avoided math. I preferred to draw because I was good at it…so I did! Now mind you, my doodling or note-taking as I referred to it, were sometimes visuals depicting math concepts but regardless, Mrs. Tyson did not always agree with my style of note-taking and sometimes took my notes from me with a verbal reprimand that was typically heard by the entire class.
Our school ran on 6-week grading periods, so much, if not all, of the first 6-weeks was a constant struggle as Mrs. Tyson and I just did not see eye-to-eye on my style of note-taking. If my memory serves me correctly, because 1986 was a long time ago (32 years to be exact), I believe it was not until the semester break that Mrs. Tyson finally realized that there might be something to my doodling.
It was a three day week before the holiday break and a dreaded three days for me. It was three days of midterm exams. Now mind you, I loved school, really….I did. In fact, I knew in the 4th grade that I wanted to be a teacher. I loved everything about it, except for Calculus class as a Junior and mid-term exam week. Who likes to spend two hours answering 200 plus questions and filling in a scantron? It’s grueling and for that matter, super boring.
When I walked into Calculus class that morning, I proceeded to the front of the room right beside Mrs. Tyson’s desk with a somewhat slouched posture…that was typical behavior for me when entering this room. I sat down with two, No. 2 pencils, my calculator and a blank piece of notebook paper and waited for the entire class to be seated. Hoping to be unnoticed and proceed with my midterm exam, Mrs. Tyson started class by calling me out. I hadn’t even started doodling yet.
She was standing at the front of the class with a rectangle-shaped picture frame against her chest. She said she had something to say and something to share and that it needed to be said in front of the whole class. Of course, I am thinking….she says everything that she is dissatisfied with me about in front of the whole class why would today be any different?
So, Angie, I need to say something to you and it must be shared in front of our class…
Because of your drawings or doodlings as you call them, you helped me to think about not just teaching the steps of solving a problem but to value the thinking process for all of my students.
Because of your drawings, you have helped me to not just teach the steps of solving a problem but to value the thinking process of each of my students.
I heard, “You have helped me….helped me value the thinking process…”
Really, I helped Mrs. Tyson? She is the queen of Mathematics, how could I have possibly helped her?
Mrs. Tyson flipped over the picture frame and enclosed was a collage of all my note-taking doodles. Mrs. Tyson really did value my thinking and immediately, I was a much more confident math student. So much, that I was no longer slouching in my chair and thought…I just might have to teach math instead of art.
This thought was just for a brief moment because as you might expect, Mrs. Tyson quickly told me to stick with art.
Mrs. Tyson’s words mattered to me on that day back in 1986. So much, that I still remember them. While it was a combination of her actions and her words, I remember both!
It was the fall of 1989, I was a 17-year-old high school senior. To that point, school and I had not been a great fit. I struggled to apply myself; I was very immature and lacked drive. Early on in that year, I decided to make a change and joined the United States Marine Corps. I realized I needed to grow up and I wasn’t ready for college. I had the ability, not the drive. I knew the Marine Corps would change that.
As part of joining the Marine Corps, my recruiter had to meet with one of my teachers to discuss my ability and character. I had not made a lot of connections with teachers to that point in my life, but I was a decent football player. I thought my position coach would be a good place to go. I had played four years of football and spent many an hour with this particular coach looking at film, etc. I had even earned all-city defensive lineman honors at that time and the defensive lineman of the year award for our team. Defensive linemen were a lot smaller in my time. I thought that if there were any adult in my life that would have something good to say about me, it would be this coach and teacher. I had also had him for two years in class.
My recruiter came to my school to meet with the coach. With me present, the recruiter told my coach why he was there and asked the coach about my Marine Corps potential. The teacher looked at the recruiter and stated, “Nathan doesn’t have a lot of talent or potential. I don’t see him amounting to much in life. I think you’re wasting your time with him.”
I have, and I will remember this conversation for the rest of my life. This was a five-second conversation that I think about every day. I even made a small sign stating “You will never amount to anything” and hung it in my barracks room in the Marine Corps. It traveled with me from Ft. Sill Oklahoma to Camp Pendleton California, to Okinawa, Japan. I was a 17-year-old kid who admittedly had not lived up to his potential to that point. But, I was trying to make a change and get myself turned around. I have often wondered how many students heard a similar message from this teacher, took his words to heart, and did not amount to much in life.
Those words have made me who I am today, and they are the reason I am an educator. I will always support my students. I will always find the best in them. I will always work to offset the negative words adults may say to them. I will always tell my students that I believe in them, that they are talented, and that they will amount to something and that I am always here to help them do that. Every conversation I have with my students has the potential to be remembered. I want to be remembered for the good things that I say.
It was October 1992, I was at the end of my job with Elford Construction and soon to be a single parent of two toddlers. My whole life is upside-down and I am scared and unsure of myself and my future. My family is 350 miles away in Buffalo NY and I have no support system in town. It’s time to find a new career.
I have sent out numerous resumes which resulted in a few interviews but no real connection or fit. I begin to question myself, my confidence and abilities. I want a position that I can grow and develop into someone greater. When I least expected it, a friend called me regarding a position with Worthington Schools in Human Resources. I inquired about the position and I thought it sounded interesting. I never considered working for a school district. I complete the application and scheduled a preliminary interview. I was excited! As I interview with Terri Gresh I was nervous and “giddy.” The interview went well. I liked the type of work described and thought I would be a good fit. I pictured myself working for Worthington Schools. Terri indicated she would get back to me.
A few days had passed I had not heard back from Terri. I was getting nervous. I soon received a phone call and it was Worthington Schools!! My heart raced and my throat tightened as I heard the words “Thank You”, “BUT” you are overqualified. At first, I could not speak. I was in shock. I felt this was the job for me. Somehow I gather the strength to ask, “can I interview anyways – will you give me a chance?” She said she would check and get back with me.
Again, a few days passed and no call. My heart is not into looking through the paper again for other possible opportunities. Finally, I get a call, its Worthington Schools. I got the interview with HR!
As I arrived at 752 High Street for my interview, I was scared and nervous. What if I mess up, make a fool of myself? I was the one who asked for this interview. Shirley Neidelander, the receptionist, was kind and her words were warm. Soon after, Joe Borst, the Director of HR greeted me and took me back to his office. There was another person sitting at the table, Shirley Vidmar, Coordinator of HR. This threw me off a bit, as I was not expecting two people to interview me. Shirley spoke first and welcomed me, and I immediately started to relax. Her kind smile and the tone of her words made me comfortable. We talked about my work history and skills, then, they wanted to know about me. What is this? Why would they want to know me? No other employer had ever asked me this. For the next 30 minutes, I talked about myself and my family. I could not believe how good I was feeling. I just talked with the most caring, kind people. I had never felt this way before about an employer. I thought to myself, I would be honored to work for Worthington Schools. Joe asked if I would be interested in accepting the position. Immediately I said “Yes”.
I started my career in Worthington on December 7, 1992, Pearl Harbor Day. I was told it would take 18 months before I would fully understand the position. I learned by watching and listening on how to be considerate, compassionate and understanding when working with staff. It is not only what you say, it is HOW you say it. Time and time again I watched Shirley and Joe handle difficult situations, from Non-renewals to new Hires to medical tragedy. Never before had I worked with such genuine individuals that truly touched my heart and soul with their “words.” I wanted to continue this level of compassion.
Twenty-six years later I continue to strive each day to help staff with whatever comes my way, whether it be “IPDP’s” or licensure renewal to name just a few. I may not always give you the answer you want, but I will always listen and treat you with respect and understanding. I care about you and your success, just like you care about your students and their success.
We here because someone took a “chance” on all of us. What we say and how we say it really does matter.
Your words matter! See, Evelyn Cummings changed my life. I never met Evelyn Cummings but without her pulling my dad into her office at Linden-McKinley High School in the summer of 1962 and literally changing the course of his future with her words and her caring, I don’t believe I would be standing here this morning. Because Evelyn believed in my dad and told him how much she believed in him, my dad did change his senior year course load. He did graduate from Linden-McKinley, and he did go to The Ohio State University where he graduated with his Bachelor’s Degree. He used that degree to become a Special Agent in the U.S. Secret Service and to eventually move to Worthington, Ohio where it seemed everyone’s parents I knew had a college degree. Because dad went to college I never even thought about not going to college. Evelyn Cummings’ words and actions changed my dad’s life, and that changed my life, and will likely impact the lives of my children and potentially their children.
Your words matter! Words have power! Therefore, we must learn to measure our words because the right choice could change someone’s life.
To that end, we must constantly be aware of the effects that words, both spoken and written, have. As you heard from Angie, Nathan, and Diane our words have the power to:
- Heal or hurt, soothe or enrage
- Clearly explain or further confuse
- Change minds or harden hearts
- Bridge divides or cement separation
- Enthrall or bore, charm or repel
- Move people to action or to tears
Your words matter! This year we must strive to measure our words when speaking with students—it will make all the difference in our relationships with them. With words well chosen, we can guide, congratulate students on their achievements, and encourage them when they come up short. I believe that the words we speak to our students have the power to change their lives. We’ve all seen this happen. We’ve likely all experienced this at some point in our own lives both positively or negatively.
In Worthington Schools, our mission is to empower a community of learners who will change the world. If our students are going to accomplish this mission they need to hear words of belief, words of encouragement, words of positive challenge from the trusted adults who are part of their world. By our words, we have the power to help our students accomplish great things. Things they never envisioned on their own. Unfortunately, if we’re not careful we have the power to do significant damage as well.
This year and every year in Worthington Schools Your Words Matter! Let’s together commit to using our words to make a positive difference in the lives of our students.
Have a great school year!