By Jesse Rhodes

It has been an incredible opportunity to lead the Light program this year. As the director some of my favorite memories were watching College Students and young adults work one-on-one with students in the High Schools – coaching, teaching, mentoring, and doing life together. Interns and volunteers worked hard to build connections and relationships with high school students; urging them to take control of their own learning.

The first week of Light I realized the incredible opportunity we had to reach, engage, and empower an extremely diverse group of students. As winter rolled around and the topics surrounding Justified Anger intensified, I became increasingly aware of the racial disparities that exist in the Madison Public Schools. I spent hours with students and I made it my mission to hear and understand as many stories as possible. One student I worked closely with was Marcus and even though I moved out of Wisconsin, Marcus and I still keep in touch. I learned about how different his family is then mine. I learned that although his GPA was under 1.0, he is extremely intelligent. I learned that because Marcus has observed violent behaviors he processes and learns differently. I learned that Marcus is often misunderstood by his teachers, that what comes across as laziness is actually quite different then laziness. I learned that Marcus loves to read but has a different value system then what is expected in traditional schools.

Stephen Covey gets credit for this quote (although it was probably some ancient philosopher) “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” As an educator, I am constantly aware of how I handle certain situations and how other teachers handle situations that arise in the classroom. I believe that one goal all teachers should have high on their priority list is to understand the stories of their students. Teachers want order. Teachers want control. Teachers want to teach without interruption. Teachers want kids to learn what teachers know. But teachers must work at building a positive relationship with students, especially trying to understand the unique stories of students.

My time with Nehemiah as the Light Director has taught me so much and I will continue to go back to this in my future years in Education: That relationship matters more than coercion. Relationship means something different than “I can fix you” or I need to make you more like me. Relationship means I want to understand and share life with you, even though its hard and messy and uncontrollable at times. I look forward to the LIGHT program continuing to give opportunities for folks in the Madison Community to volunteer with young people as tutors, but more importantly to build relationships that empower young people from every walk of life.