February 14, 2011
Jerry Goebel brought a message of trust and positive direction to Edmonton's Catholic school staff.


Jerry Goebel brought a message of trust and positive direction to Edmonton's Catholic school staff.


Jerry Goebel learned a crucial lesson from his mentor who was a photographer for Life magazine.

The man shot all his photos in black and white, without ever using a flash. He used the available light to tell a story.

"It is our role to find the available light," Goebel told 3,400 teachers and other staff Feb. 1 at Edmonton Catholic Schools' Faith Development Day.

"That is what we do as teachers and it's what we do as custodians. It's what we do as office managers, and it's what we do when we see every child in the classroom."


Finding the available light in every student is what makes a meaningful teacher, he told the Catholic school staff.

Goebel's mentor led him into his work as a prison chaplain. There, Goebel met a 17-year-old male facing a 45-year incarceration in an adult prison.

The young prisoner lived a lonely life. Too young, he could not associate with the adult prisoners. Apart from an occasional visit from Goebel, the only human contact he had was with the prison guards.

"It was basically 23 hours in his jail cell in solitary confinement. He got one hour outside in the yard by himself. I was meeting him on Easter morning and I asked him, 'How do you know God loves you?'" said Goebel.

The prisoner led Goebel to the door of his cell, and leaned hard against the door. Crooking his head and looking down the long corridor he could see a corner of a window in the distance where soft light shone in.

"When it's light out, I can see sunlight coming in through the dust," said the prisoner, saying that the available light was a reminder of God's love for him.

For over 30 years Goebel, a community organizer and prison chaplain from Walla Walla, Wash., has been working with educators, teaching adults how to have significant conversations with young people.


His primary philosophy is that poverty is a lack of healthy relationships. His primary focus has been to break down the barriers of poverty through creating cultures of intentional courtesy.

"I work with young people in our schools and in our detention centres," Goebel said. "I tell them the difference between a meaningful life and a life that's absent of meaning. Do we live our lives with intention or do we live our lives by incident?"

The falsehood of happiness is trying to find bliss and sustaining it for the rest of our lives. Some people resort to drugs or alcohol to attain this state, which is ultimately impossible. Real happiness is achieved by living life with intention, he said.

The secret to a meaningful life is resisting the temptations of seeking comfort, approval and power. One achieves a meaningful life through enthusiasm, encouragement and engaging a community.


Donations through Goebel's concerts, workshops and other activities go to increasing awareness and improving intervention and prevention strategies for groups in southeastern Washington that meet the needs of high-risk and incarcerated youth.

Two years ago, Goebel eulogized his mother. He described her as the perfect mom because of her compassion. She saw her children telescopically, not microscopically. Rather than seeing only their warts and foibles, she looked for the available light in her children.

"What can we do as Catholic teachers to deepen our faith? We look for the available light, and we look at children telescopically, not microscopically," he said.

A comprehensive study among 300 schools in Chicago over a 10-year period revealed that the number one factor separating the highest achieving schools from the lowest achieving schools is not the curriculum or technology.

"The number one characteristic of high-achieving schools is trust among adults. If the adults trust each other, the children thrive," said Goebel.

"What we learn is that one great teacher is incredible, but it's nothing compared to a whole community of teachers who trust each other."

The same concept applies to marriages. A husband and wife should not expect each other to be perfect but simply to be themselves. Citing another study on marital relationships, Goebel said that after 40 years of marriage, one could change his or her partner by as much as 15 per cent.

"That means 85 per cent of the problems you start with, you're going to end up with. So do you want to focus on weaknesses or do you want to focus on strengths?" he asked.

"When you focus on weaknesses, there is a glass ceiling that you'll never be able to break."

Successful husbands and wives - like successful teachers - are people who spend little energy and priceless time trying to eliminate, reduce or improve weaknesses that do not really matter. They succeed by focusing on strengths.

"In communities of trust, you give each other the benefit of the doubt. You realize that this person might carry a burden. This person is struggling to find available light in their lives too. When you give someone the benefit of the doubt, that's compassion," he said.