John Gudgel creates community through listening, learning
- Published: July 12, 2023
This is the seventh in a series examining the meaning of community through the eyes of residents working to build and shape it in Yellow Springs.
“He helped me through so many things from second to sixth grade, and I don’t think I’ve ever properly thanked him for that. Thank you, Mr. Gudgel!”
— Zoe Hamilton, Class of 2023
Year after year, the Yellow Springs News prints a booklet featuring members of the Yellow Springs High School graduating class. In it, students are encouraged to write essays talking about their experiences throughout their career at the school, the people who impacted them, and the memories they will carry as they enter adulthood. Each year students talk about a teacher, administrator, or coach who inspired or influenced them, and each year John Gudgel’s name is mentioned.
A stalwart face in the Yellow Springs district, Gudgel has served as a teacher, coach, principal and guidance counselor in his nearly 40-year career with the district beginning in 1979. Gudgel said he always knew he wanted to pursue a degree in education, but he initially decided to go into business education after taking a typing class at Yellow Springs High School.
“I could type faster than anybody else,” Gudgel said. “But I also had this love of history.”
So, “as many students do,” Gudgel said he switched his major from business to history, deciding that it would provide long term stability and an opportunity to approach learning and teaching in a different manner.
“Becoming a social studies teacher provided me an opportunity in terms of social awareness, social conscience — all those things that sometimes we forget about as human beings,” Gudgel said. “[Social studies teaches] the importance of getting along with others, living in a world where we have to learn how to understand and work with people from different backgrounds and cultures.”
Gudgel said he particularly liked finding ways to teach about those differences through subjects like geography.
“Students will certainly tell you ‘Mr. Gudgel was the only teacher who made me memorize all 50 states and capitals,’” Gudgel said. “But it was a well-liked class, and, again, it enhances the opportunity to learn about people from different parts of the world.”
Understanding and accepting those differences from pupil to pupil is what Gudgel said has helped him connect with and guide many students over the years.
“I just saw, and continue to see, so much potential [in students],” Gudgel said. “When people are working together and supporting one another they can reach a level of success.”
Over the course of his long career as a teacher, administrator, counselor and coach, Gudgel said he has developed a philosophy with three pillars: listening to students, showing a sense of caring and support and making students feel like they are a part of the educational process.
“As a teacher, we can stand in front of a group of kids and we can do all the talking,” Gudgel said. “Yet we fail to listen and engage them in the process of education and teaching. When they know that you’re listening, they know that you’re a caring individual, then they feel important and valued.”
Throughout his time as an administrator Gudgel’s job was to both make decisions for the student body and mentor new teachers. In that role, Gudgel said he urged new teachers to understand that education, and becoming an educator, is a process.
“In many instances, these kids see you more than they see their parents or guardians, so you have to get to know your kids,” Gudgel said. “Of course, you are their teacher, but [the kids] want to see you as a person who cares about them on a personal level, not just as a student in their classroom.”
As someone who has been a part of the district and the community for so long, Gudgel says he has an advantage of knowing and being known by many members of the community.
“I’m the old guy around here,” he said. “So, it’s heartwarming to me when teachers come to me in the capacity as a former cohort member, as someone who cares, and asks me questions about how they can better themselves as a teacher.”
Along with his affinity for education and learning, Gudgel said teaching afforded him the opportunity to coach cross-country as well as track and field for Yellow Springs. As a former all-American football player and state track champion, Gudgel said he enjoyed playing all sports growing up, including soccer, baseball and swimming.
“People who see me wouldn’t know that I’m one of the most competitive people around,” Gudgel said. “But I quickly learned that shifting from competitor to coach was a big, big change.”
Despite his fierce competitiveness, Gudgel said it has been important for him to put his athletes first.
“My attitude has always been that whether [an athlete] is an all-American or can barely make it around the track, I treat them the same,” he said.
That approach has resulted in a long line of state champions throughout Gudgel’s tenure as coach.
“If they do their best, that’s all I can expect from them,” Gudgel said. “I’ve given you the preparation. I’ve given you the training. Now you have to go out and take everything that I as a coach have provided to you and do the best that you can.”
It is because of that philosophy that Gudgel is revered by both students and staff and why he continues to create a community of teachers, learners and athletes that make up Yellow Springs Schools.
Beyond the schools
Outside of the brick and mortar walls of Yellow Springs’ schools, Gudgel has founded and joined organizations that mirror his interests in history and building relationships with people. Starting in the mid-2000s, Gudgel has worked to preserve the history and legacy of Black people in Yellow Springs as one of the founding members of The 365 Project, a local nonprofit. Gudgel said the impetus of The 365 Project came from a 2008 meeting in First Baptist Church. A core group decided to start The 365 Project and met weekly for some time.
“After two or three years of meetings, I was a little frustrated, but around 2011 I began to see a shift, and then Kevin McGruder, who has a love for history and a lot of energy, came on board,” Gudgel said. “We grew in membership and the activities we were engaging in began to make a difference.”
Today, Gudgel said, The 365 Project is one of the go-to organizations for people who want to learn about Black history in Yellow Springs, or people who are having issues with racism within the village.
“I feel like we have made a significant impact,” Gudgel said. “I’m amazed. I’m truly amazed.”
Though The 365 Project has made space for Black people and others to learn about the historical impacts of Black Americans and Blacks in Yellow Springs, Gudgel says he is worried about the future of the organization.
“Many of our members are up in age,” he said. “My worry is that, as an older organization, no one will step up to the plate to continue preserving the legacy of Blacks in Yellow Springs and The 365 Project.”
Along with his work preserving history through The 365 Project, Gudgel worked for years as a mediator for the Yellow Springs Village Mediation Program, serving as its coordinator between 2010 and 2021.
“When I retired [from the school system] in 2010 for all of two weeks, I saw there was an opening for the Village Mediation Program,” Gudgel said. “I thought [becoming Village Mediation coordinator] would be a great way to continue much of what I’ve done in the school system in terms of bringing people together to peacefully resolve conflicts in a non threatening way.”
As the coordinator, Gudgel said he found that the first step was finding mediators that people going through the process could trust, but oftentimes, conflicts between adults were more difficult to resolve than conflicts between children.
“Our cognitive ability is more developed as adults, but I believe kids are truly more forgiving,” Gudgel said. “But we are all mediators at our core. We all want to solve conflicts.”
After a lifetime of living and working in the village, Gudgel said he has seen many changes.
“The division that has impacted our country has, sadly, impacted our village as well. That’s not what Yellow Springs should represent,” Gudgel said.
Citing needs for diversity, housing and updated school facilities, Gudgel said he hopes that the village can regain the close-knit community feel that he experienced as a child.
“A community is vibrant and full of people with the ability to get along with one another, a group of people who are caring for, listening to, and valuing each other,” Gudgel said. “A place we can all be proud of.”