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Today's Teenagers are Tomorrow's Leaders

When I read about the latest study from the University of Michigan's "Monitoring the Future Survey, " I will admit that I was a little skeptical. How could this be? All we hear is about the irresponsibility of teenagers. Yet, they are less likely to do illegal drugs, have sex, smoke, and drink than their parents according to this research.

Last week, I spent two days with teenagers in Northeast Ohio, I can attest that this may be the most responsible generation in some time. I suspect it is not just the Lady Gaga version of "Born this Way." This generation has more information, does more networking, has better access to customized support programs, and, dare I say, has more "helicopter parents" than any other generation. I am impressed with today's teenagers and heartened that this generation will easily replace the "Baby Boomers" with more ethical and responsible behavior.

I was in Ohio to observe the programs of Project Love, Remember the Children Foundation founded by Susan and Stuart Muszynski in 1994. I spent one day with over 100 9th graders from Cuyahoga Falls High School. They were being introduced to a Kindness and Respect Curriculum designed by Project Love. They learned about people who were perpetrators, victims, bystanders, and rescuers in our everyday life as well as the choices we make to play those roles. They had deep conversations with each other led by juniors and seniors in the school. I observed a school culture that valued and respected everyone, a culture of people who were willing to be rescuers rather than bystanders. I observed the making of leaders who would assume responsibility to assure a safe and nurturing environment for eveyone by practicing and sharing what they had learned in this workshop. It was a heartwarming experience. These teenagers are terrific.

The next day, I observed a similar program being delivered by Project Love staff in a middle school in Cleveland. As a former middle school teacher, I know that peer pressure can be overwhelming among young teens. To see these young teenagers learn how to navigate that peer culture and lead it to a caring and respecful place gave me hope. Once a week for fourteen weeks, these students will participate in a program called READI4Youth- Winning @ the Game of Life. They will be empowered to be the influencers rather than only the influenced.

That evening, I had one of those opportunities teachers cherish. I talked to four teenage girls from Collinwood High School in Cleveland whose lives had been transformed by a program called "Believe to Achieve." Project Love embedded a retired teacher into this high poverty school to work with a cohort of female students as a mentor, counselor, and a teacher of the Kindness and Respect Curriculum. Every senior in this program will graduate from high school and attend college. Can you get anymore successful? The four teenagers talked openly and honestly to us about their journey to this succesful place. I was impressed with their poise, intellect, determination, and social skills. They are laser- focused on changing their current circumstances in life. They credited their success to Judy Wynne-Martin, that retired teacher and longtime NEA member who refused to give up on them.

These girls have never travelled outside of Cleveland. Ms. Wynne-Martin is determined to take them to the nation's capital Washington DC on their spring break. She is short $10,000. I intend to send her a personal check and I invite you to do the same. Any amount is one step closer to their dream. Just write a check to Project Love-Believe to Achieve and send it to me at 5007 Dunwoody Trail, Raleigh, NC 27606, and I will get it to Judy. Let's show how caring adults can be. This will be a surprise to these wonderful teenagers.

My colleague Greg Johnson, a member of the NEA Executive Committee and music teacher from Oklahoma, was also on this trip. Greg made a statement that stayed with me. He said that sometimes teachers just need permission to do what they know is in the best interest of their students. In these days of high stakes testing and limited curriculum, I encourage administrators to do as those in Project Love districts have done; give teachers permission to reach beyond test-prescribed curriculum to ensure a generation of citizens who are leaders and who value respect for others. Welcome programs like Project Love as partners in teaching the children who will be in charge of our future.

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