Make learning, marriage equality personal

Published 10:19 am Friday, November 2, 2012

Column: Jeremy Corey-Gruenes, Paths to Peace

“Teaching is about relationships,” my graduate school adviser told me. “You could be the brightest, most well-read, well-informed teacher in the world and be horrible in the classroom. Relationships open doors to learning.”

Jeremy Corey-Gruenes

He spoke to me with an intensity demanding my full attention, and I had one of those moments where you suddenly understand something rather profound that should have been obvious to you.

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Good teachers all have their own ways of connecting with their students, and my adviser certainly did. One way was through his eccentric choice of clothing, which I’m convinced was a teaching strategy. He was always wearing clothes that stood out. In fact, he was well known for a bright yellow suit that he often wore — a ridiculous outfit, really, but one that made him interesting to his students and sparked casual conversation. Seeing him stroll to class was like seeing a giant banana walking across campus.

His eccentric wardrobe and disregard for any weird reactions it inspired also taught an implied lesson to his students: “Be comfortable with who you are. Own your identity.”

One semester, I remember seeing a few students arrive at his human relations class wearing bright yellow sport coats of their own, their way of both entertaining their classmates and sending the message of, “I get you, and you’ve got my interest,” to their professor.

Relationships established. Doors opened.

When I was an undergraduate at St. John’s University, professors were encouraged to attend the seniors/faculty happy hour at the on-campus pub on Fridays. One spring my Shakespeare professor invited our entire class to her home to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday with a traditional Elizabethan meal. We had such a good time she invited the same group back the following year. I even played in a band for a while with one of my profs.

But high school student/teacher relationships are very different than collegiate ones. Our students are younger, and we maintain different boundaries with them. We also deal with behavior problems and can have as many as 150 different students — often more — in our classrooms on a given day, so connecting with everyone consistently is difficult.

I don’t own a yellow suit, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not always successful in establishing good relationships with all my students. I try to relate the material we study to my own life, just as I ask my students to. I sing and play guitar to most of my classes at some point each year, and I try to ask about and remember their personal interests and activities.

I also connect to students through their writing assignments. In some of my classes I ask my students to write letters, rather than traditional essays, to me. These letters are very similar to essays, but they allow for a more personal introduction and a more casual tone. I comment on both the academic and personal parts of their letters, and they often respond to my comments in their next assignments.

Our correspondences sometimes continue years later via email and Facebook. I don’t accept Facebook friendship requests from students until after they graduate, but the requests come from graduates each year, and I really enjoy how Facebook makes maintaining these relationships so easy.

Recently a former student posted a powerful letter he wrote about the proposed constitutional marriage amendment on the ballot next week. (Just a reminder, a yes vote would change our state’s constitution to make it very difficult for same-sex marriage to ever be legal in our state. While same-sex marriage is not currently legal, a no vote would keep the constitution as it is and allow for our state legislators to perhaps make same-sex marriage legal one day.)

Eric’s letter is too long to share in its entirety here, but with his permission I share his conclusion, which reminded me of the importance of relationships in teaching and learning:

If you know me and are still struggling with how to vote on this, chances are we are not that great of friends. But I do have something that may be of some help. When you read the comments/rhetoric of what “gay” marriage is and what it will do, replace the word “gay” with my name (or the name of any other LGBT individual you may know).


Eric shouldn’t be allowed to marry.

Eric getting married is a threat to families.

Eric cannot be a good parent.

Eric doesn’t love; it’s only lust.

Eric is “fixable” with electroshock therapy and psychological torture.

Eric is what’s wrong with this country.

If Eric can marry, we should just let people marry animals.

Being Eric is a choice.

Think about how ridiculous that sounds. Let it sink in. Maybe you’ll change your mind.

My comments on Eric’s letter would go something like this: Thanks for the well-written, logical and heart-felt letter, Eric. Making this issue personal is so important. It’s so much harder to imagine discriminating against someone you have a relationship with. I hope you’ve opened some minds with your words. I’ll be voting no.


Jeremy Corey-Gruenes is a high school teacher in Albert Lea, where he lives with his wife and two young daughters. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter @jemcorey.