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You Made a Difference

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Nearly two months ago I had a blog posted on the Huffington Post criticizing the advertising campaign for the then-newly released movie Bad Teacher starring Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel. The ad campaign included a television trailer implying the drop in America's educational ranking around the world is because of bad teachers, such as the character Cameron Diaz portrayed in the film. I had no way of knowing the ramifications of what I had written, or that it would, pardon my truthful cliché, change my life.

I awoke the morning after the post had been published and started my routine like any other day: debating whether the previous night's sleep would be better shaken off by drinking the coffee I had made or by simply splashing it in my face. Before I had a chance to finish that debate, my eyes lost focus when I signed into my email account. Staring me down from my laptop monitor was an email inbox stuffed with hundreds of emails responding to the Bad Teacher critique. Now, I get the occasional message or two. And I always appreciate when my mom sends me a funny joke she heard, or when my best friend, an individual who recently earned his MD, sends me updates on his obsession, Carrie Fisher, the actress of Star Wars fame (it's weird). But never in my life have I received hundreds of emails in such a short span of time.

After opening the first few messages sent to me, one thing became inherently clear: there were a lot of individuals in the educational field with quite a bit on their mind. Each email I opened had a different perspective and a different tale, though the tone was nearly always the same, and it wasn't positive. Stories of troubled school districts and uncertain futures came in rolling waves, and it seemed that every email I read produced two new ones in its place. At that point my mind was made up: I would respond to each and every message I received. If an individual I didn't even know was willing to open their life up to me, the very least I could do was let them know I was there and listening -- that their trust had not fallen upon deaf ears or uncaring eyes.

A full week later, as I sent the last response from my inbox's bombardment, I wished I had splashed coffee in my face. At least that way I could better excuse the mist beginning to form in my eyes. Never in my life had so many people confided their innermost fears and frustrations to me. What alarmed me more than anything, however, was the continuous theme of demoralization in their stories. As a recent college graduate who is struggling like so many in the current job market, demoralization was an old acquaintance. The one thing I've learned, though, is the abandonment of hope is dangerous ground. While I have no influence over the job market, I did know I could do everything in my power to help the many who had reached out.

I remembered one of the emails I had exchanged with a teacher named Leslie Needleman from a Philadelphia suburb. We had expressed a similar goal: to create an organization that thanks educators for all that they do. And before either of us truly realized the enormity of what we were attempting, a month of planning had given life to the "You Made A Difference" Campaign, a project where individuals are encouraged to thank educators who have made a difference in their lives.

When our plan transcended into organizational reality, Leslie and I knew the success of our efforts would rest on the many educators who had reached out since the Bad Teacher post had been published. Once again I set about emailing every individual who had sent me a message to let them know what had been started as Leslie went about informing educators within the Philadelphia area. As we knew they would, the educators came through, spreading the news of the newly founded campaign to peers and colleagues.

Not only did the "You Made A Difference" Campaign have a groundswell of grassroots support, but individuals of influence stepped forward to help spread the message. Jerry Penacoli, Emmy Award winner and host of the television program Extra, was the first to hop on board, not only making a professional video thanking a teacher important to him but also promoting us on his social media outlets. Soon after, Dave Coverly, award-winning creator of the comic strip "Speed Bump," gave us his unwavering support. I can honestly say that his caring and kindness are nearly impossible to match. He has been in constant contact with our campaign to stay updated, asking if he can help in any way, and even recruiting people of influence of his own to the cause.

Laurie Keller, children's author and illustrator, is another shining example of outstanding kindness. The Muskegon, Michigan, native overcame her nerves to create a video and never gave up on the campaign, even when technical issues made receiving her video extremely difficult. Garnering support from Dr. John Dunn, President of Western Michigan University, meant a lot to me, personally, being a recent graduate of WMU. Having a private meeting with the head of my alma mater is something I never thought I would be a part of, and it meant a great deal, as did the overwhelming support from the university. Having the backing of fellow Kalamazoo, Michigan, native and two-time Olympic champion, Lindsay Tarpley, is still something Leslie and I have to pinch ourselves to believe.

Looking at where the "You Made A Difference" Campaign is now and reflecting on how it has grown to this point is humbling to consider. This effort was 100% the creation of the educators from the United States, Canada and Germany who contacted me after my original post was published. And when I think back on the heartbreaking stories I read, the great people we have been in contact with and the absolute honor it was to be in communication with them -- "overwhelmed" is the only word I can use to describe the experience.

All of you have shown what a difference a group of individuals can make, even ones who have never met. Thank you, to all of the educators, for yet again teaching me a lesson. All of your dedicated work -- this campaign is yours, and you have all "Made A Difference" in my life.

Now excuse me while I find some coffee to splash in my face. There seems to be mist in my eyes again.

Scott Janssen is a recent graduate of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with a Master's degree in Political Science. Contact the campaign at youmadeadifferencecampaign@gmail.com.

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