Podcast S2. Ep 23: Making Your School A Place Where Everyone Belongs - Jeff Gerber

Character Strong · November 5, 2019

Jeff Gerber is a Leadership teacher and Student Council Advisor at Waterloo-Oxford District Secondary School, 5 minutes from his home in New Hamburg, Ontario, Canada. At Waterloo-Oxford he leads one of the largest and most impactful student leadership programs in the province of Ontario. He is passionate about servant leadership and character development and travels across North America speaking about Leadership, Love and Belonging. He was recognized as Advisor of the Year for the province of Ontario in 2013 and as a National Leader of Distinction by the Canadian Student Leadership Association in 2017. You can check out his TEDx talk on Belonging on Youtube and connect with him on social media @jeffgpresents

We talk with Jeff about the key role that relationships play in building belonging, how building relationships is the backdrop we can have for all of the activities at school, and he shares the key components of building a culture of belonging.


“I think in today's world, and this sort of comes back to young people needing to belong, what young people and adults alike in a building really need is they need love and attention. It's a lot easier sometimes to be generous with our resources than it is with our time. Mother Theresa says, "There's more hunger for love and attention in this world than there is for bread." I think if we can make that point to people that be there, be in the moment. I know as educators, we're often sort of rushing off to the next thing. I know that's a real challenge for me and a real challenge to our kids is to be generous, not just with our resources, but more so with our time and our attention.”

Jeff Gerber

Episode Transcript:

  • John: Hey CharacterStrong commuters. Whether you're listening for the first time or have been an active listener of the show, if you like what you hear, we'd like to invite you to check out to see if we're going to be in your area leading an educator training sometime soon. These trainings are building champions all around the country on how we can infuse social emotional learning and a focus on relationships into the daily fabric of our classrooms and our schools. Visit characterstrong.com/educators to learn more. Now onto today's show.
  • John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Jeff Gerber. Jeff is a leadership teacher and student council advisor at Waterloo-Oxford District Secondary School, five minutes from his home in New Hamburg, Ontario, Canada. At Waterloo-Oxford, he leads one of the largest and most impactful student leadership programs in the province of Ontario. He is passionate about servant leadership and character development and travels across North America speaking about leadership, love, and belonging. He was recognized as advisor of the year for the province of Ontario in 2013 and as a national leader of distinction by the Canadian Student Leadership Association in 2017. You can check out his TEDx talk on belonging on YouTube and connect with him on social media @JeffGpresents. Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Jeff Gerber.
  • John: All right, we are so thrilled to have my friend Jeff Gerber on the CharacterStrong podcast today. How are you my friend?
  • Jeff: Hey, I'm fantastic, John. It's a real thrill to be on here with you today.
  • John: Well first of all, where are you calling from today so our listeners know?
  • Jeff: Yes, I'm in New Hamburg, Ontario, Canada. About one hour West of Toronto, home of the NBA champion, Toronto Raptors.
  • John: Nice. I'll take that five bucks from you later so that you can get that shout out. No, that's awesome. Are you an NBA fan? Because I'm an NHL guy.
  • Jeff: Yeah, NHL is king here of course, but we've all become basketball fans in the last number of years up here of course as well.
  • John: That is awesome. Well it's been so wonderful to connect with you. I had actually been introduced to your work, saw the Ted talk that you had given, but then you traveled all the way across, not just Canada, the U.S. and actually spent some time with us this summer at the leadership camp that both Houston and myself as cofounders of CharacterStrong. But outside of that, we've worked with our state leadership program for many, many years. We got to spend some time with you in the woods of Washington state where you came down to Mt. Adams Leadership Camp and got to experience a little bit of that with us. How was your experience overall?
  • Jeff: Oh, I had a great summer, but that was certainly a highlight of the summer, a highlight of my professional career as far as just professional development and just being able to ... I'd met Houston before, but it was just a chance to get to know you better and to understand the heart and the intentionality behind all that you guys do with CharacterStrong. It was fantastic, and to be able to continue some of that work alongside you and to talk to you today. It really reflects a lot of what I've always felt was important, but just your way of saying and presenting it just really rings true with me.
  • John: Well, thank you. That means a lot, and to compliment you obviously being very accomplished in the work that you're doing. Just the level of just humility and intentionality that you demonstrated while you were here and have always had in all of our interactions. Just grateful for the example that you set. Let's dig in because you've got powerful things to share. We really believe in cut the fluff, get right to the stuff. Let's talk about it. I know that the idea, the concept of making your school a place where everyone belongs, I know that that's a big part of your message and what you share. In fact, I have a shirt from you because I know that you speak that includes that message. Talk to me a little bit about that to start.
  • Jeff: Yeah. I think something that people who work with young people today as us in education too and people as parents as well understand that young people probably need to belong to be connected to people today maybe more than ever. They're more connected technologically of course. But studies show that they're more isolated than ever. More lonely, less happy, more isolated. You could say they have the technology to live like never before, but they lack sort of the deep personal connections that they need to be truly alive.
  • John: To give context too for our listeners, you're in this work every day. I mean your day to day work is what with students?
  • Jeff: Yeah, that's right. Yeah. Leadership teacher at Waterloo-Oxford District Secondary School. Yes.
  • John: That's awesome. When you talk about that, I mean, right with you, we're speaking to the choir and people listening are like, "Yep. Okay. Awesome." So let's talk about that. Let's talk about the key role of relationships in building belonging and how you do that, how you manifest that in the work that you're doing.
  • Jeff: Yeah, for sure. One of our mantras in our program is that the biggest ship of leadership is relationship. I mean, we really think that relationships are sort of the foundation of everything. I mean, the research for that, the Harvard study about development tells us that the quality of relationships is the biggest link to a fulfilling and satisfying life. We know it in our hearts and we know it empirically as well. Therefore, what we try to keep as a backdrop for any events or activities that we're running in the school, well, why are we doing it? Well, our reason is to provide opportunities for people to connect that might not otherwise connect. Whether you're carving a pumpkin in homeroom or decorating your homeroom for a holiday or having an outdoor dance for what you would call incoming freshmen, what we would call grade nines, spirited grade competitions, schoolwide fundraisers, whatever you're doing, the backdrop for all that is to provide opportunities for people to connect and build relationships that might not otherwise have them.
  • Jeff: I mean, I think belonging comes from relationships, and you can't really have relationships if you don't have common experiences. I think the role of sort of an activities program in a school is to provide as many of those common experiences as you can and to make them appealing for people that they want to be part of it.
  • John: That's excellent. Well then let's keep digging in. How about this? What would you say are the key components of building a culture of belonging then?

“One of our mantras in our program is that the biggest ship of leadership is relationship. I mean, we really think that relationships are sort of the foundation of everything.”

Jeff Gerber


  • Jeff: Yeah, we sort of break that down into four words that come from the acronym BELONG. You want to be loving, the L in belong. Love is a verb. It's a choice. It's putting someone else's needs ahead of your own. As leaders in your school or as staff in your school, I mean because all of these things apply to the classroom as well, anything you can do to set aside time to focus on relationships is going to pay off in the academic realm as well. So obviously being loving is part of that. You want to be optimistic. Happiness draws people in, and I think a great comparison or a great model if you're trying to sort of think, well what does someone who's loving and optimistic look like? Our grandparents I think sort of model that. There's nobody more loving. Nobody putting other people's interests ahead of their own. Nobody more optimistically believing about the best in their grandkids than grandparents. If you can sort of that hold that picture in front of people, that's an important picture.
  • Jeff: Probably the last two, if you're going to B-E-L-O-N-G, loving, optimistic, noble. Noble is a word we maybe don't use a lot anymore. But in our context, it basically means to be a hero. It means to sort of take the high road in a situation, it means to maybe give somebody a hand up instead of putting them down. Maybe squelch a rumor instead of spreading it. The last one, G. Generous. You want to be loving, optimistic, noble and generous as character traits or as things to keep in mind as you're performing your tasks within the school and in your classroom. That generosity, I mean we often think of when people are talking about, "Oh, I need to be more generous." We often think of, well I need to share my resources more, my money, or whatever.
  • Jeff: I think in today's world, and this sort of comes back to young people needing to belong, what young people and adults alike in a building really need is they need love and attention. It's a lot easier sometimes to be generous with our resources than it is with our time. Mother Theresa says, "There's more hunger for love and attention in this world than there is for bread." I think if we can make that point to people that be there, be in the moment. I know as educators, we're often sort of rushing off to the next thing. I know that's a real challenge for me and a real challenge to our kids is to be generous, not just with our resources, but more so with our time and our attention. I mean, I've heard you say it and I know you've talked about it. You give time to what you value. What do we value more? Do we value the extra 10 minutes of content we can squeeze into a class? Do we value getting to the photocopier before somebody else does, or do we value that interaction that we're going to have with a student?
  • John: Yep. If we want all students to learn, yeah, it goes to just that. When we make time for that which is most important, and the idea that if we want all students to learn, there is a big difference between academic engaged time and time dedicated to instruction. I always share, and I won't share the long version of this, but the short version of it, walking into high school. Just to go in a fun way to what you said earlier, having worked in Canada a number of summers out at the University of British Columbia Hockey School and having many friends who are in education, I still catch myself at times saying both. When I'm talking with someone I'll be like freshmen or grade nines because I know and it's been like just drilled into me. It's like grade twelves, not seniors. In a fun way.
  • John: But that idea of the toughest subject area growing up was math. My first teacher that I really remembered in high school in a positive way was my math teacher. It was, one, his passion for the subject. Two, his relentless approach relationally to connecting with us and making math fun. Because of that, I wanted to go through a wall for that man, including doing whatever it took to get extra help I needed in math. Once I started to learn math and become successful with it, and that's really the reason why in quotes I didn't like it is because I struggled with it. Well it doesn't mean it's a bad thing, but how do you get someone to start to be motivated to want to go that extra mile and to learn? I'll never forget Mr. Eagle because of that.
  • John: If we want all students to learn that, we got to put that focus on relationships. Maybe this, as we're starting to bring this podcast to a close, give us some of just the practical things. Things that you do and/or even you're starting another year are some practical ways that you put a focus in any one of these areas, whether it be in your classroom or school wide? Because I know your focus is in both areas, that school wide culture as well as in your own classroom. Leave us with a couple gems. The things that you just really enjoy doing to help bring this to life.
  • Jeff: Yeah. I'll zero in on the classroom. I'm really intentional the very first week about ... I sort of start, "Hey, today we're going to take attendance." Kids think, well, that's pretty simple. But I'll take a full period class going through and talking to each student, getting their name right. Hey, this is your opportunity to tell me how you want me to say your name. Have a conversation that the whole class is going to listen and participate in. What was the highlight of your summer? What's something you're looking forward to this year? Do you have a sibling that went here? Just whatever conversation starter you feel works for that student.
  • Jeff: Second day, just talk about general concepts. Nothing significant. Third day, let's go outside. We're going to play ice breaker games. We're going to get to know each other's names, our middle names, our last names, our birth dates. We're going to play games and get to know more details about each other.
  • Jeff: We had our fourth day of class today, and I didn't get to the course outline until today. I think those sorts of things just send a signal that, you know what ... We have a sort of a small saying in the social studies area of our school. People ask what you teach and we like to say, "Well, we teach people." Rather than our subject area. The pay off is going to be there. I mean, we're all subject specialists. Teachers are all the same types of people. But if you can spend some time intentionally making connections with kids, the old adage, nobody knows how much ... They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care, sort of thing. We find that works a lot. Obviously at the big picture level, we're really intentionally focused on our grade nines and our incoming students and welcoming them into the building as well of course.
  • John: That's awesome. Yeah. We know the data on those transition years into how critical they are. Well, how about this? I always love it when I feel like at the end of the time that I want to spend another hour talking with the person. I definitely feel that right now.
  • Jeff: Awesome.
  • John: But I just want to end with one thank you for the work that you're doing and you're presenting for us amongst doing your own presentations. You speak in schools, and I don't know how you balance everything, but my guess is that you're out and about quite a bit. Is that correct?
  • Jeff: Yes, yes I am. Yeah, and the opportunity to present with CharacterStrong, that's been awesome. I've just even found just being back in the classroom this fall, just being able to bring back what we were talking about in the course outline, learning skills that we evaluate on our report cards and just being able to point out that the academics only cover a third to 50% of what you're going to need to know. Employers, eight of the 10 things they're looking for aren't your English mark or your calculus mark. Can you take initiative? Can you get along with other people? Are you kind? All those character traits are so important. Being able to highlight that with kids and then model it, I think that's huge.
  • John: Awesome man. Well, thank you, Jeff, for your time. Thank you for the work that you're doing. I look forward to our next conversation. Thanks for being such a just passionate force for this work and all that you do.
  • Jeff: Well, thanks so much, John. Great to talk to you. I look forward to having the opportunity to do it again.
  • John: All right, talk to you soon. Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review, and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we're supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening, and make it a great day.

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