please keep loving the kids: a letter to teachers
I met up yesterday with my favorite professor in grad school (the first time). We went to this little hole-in-the-wall coffee place in downtown Boone. My left Jack Rogers sandal broke while I was walking there, so I had to turn around and put on the only other pair of shoes I had in my car (purple Nikes, to wear with my darkwash jeans – this is called athleisure), so I was late. We got a table and I told him that I had decided to leave the school system to go back to grad school (so, for the second time) to eventually go into private practice. He didn’t ask me why; he asked me what I had learned from my time in the schools. A few things, I said.
One of the other professors I had in grad school (the first time), who I famously did not get along with, taught us something that has never sat well with me for a single day I have worked in a school. So, the problematic thing that my professor shared with us is that there are students who are apples, and there are students who are onions. Let me elaborate. With apples, there is a core. You get beneath the surface, and you dig a little, and eventually you get to the “workable” part of the fruit – the core. You can do something here, with this one.
"But with an onion kid, there is no core," she said. Lots and lots of layers, but no core. You can dig and dig and dig, but you never get much of anywhere, and there is nothing you can do for them, ultimately. Maybe teach them some phonics or calculus at best, maybe, and I think another word for this is “incorrigible” – which I happen to adamantly not believe in. (All incorrigible really means is that there are a lot of problems where a love deficit also exists, which is not anyone’s fault in particular, except everyone’s. Again, another story for another day.)
The thing is, there is no such thing as an onion. Absolutely no such thing. I cannot believe I even wrote this down in my notes. This is a mountain I am willing to die on. I know that this is true, because according to that professor’s paradigm, I am an onion: one of her qualifications for “onionhood” is having a serious mental illness.
Thank you for sharing that, professor. Challenge accepted, honestly.
There are no onions. Just apples who need different amounts of love in different ways than other apples.
There is always something you can do. You can always love, even if you don’t see that love doing anything. There are no lost causes. Every kid in every seat is an apple, and they all need your love, and they all deserve it. Every single one of them. The ones who aren’t listening, and the ones who are failing, and the ones who have ADHD so bad you can see it coming out of their wiggly little bodies. The ones who are quarterbacks and the ones who didn’t make the football team and the ones who come from a lot of money and the ones who are homeless and the ones who have braces and the ones whose parents are alcoholics. They all need it, and they all deserve it.
The problem is not that teachers are withholding love. The problem is teachers and counselors and administrators and all the other school people having their arms full with expectations about test scores from lawmakers and all the legislation that says to go here and do this and be better, all at once. Our arms are so full and the list is so long and we are so tired that sometimes loving the kids gets put last.
And y’all, those tests are coming. My mama is the best teacher I know, and I know this because she won this big fancy award and they sent her all over the world and she gets hired to teach other teachers how to be better teachers. I know she is a good one. But I can tell when the standardized tests are coming in Virginia because it’s when I start hearing her doubt herself when I talk to her on the phone. I know she is thinking about those pass rates and what will happen if her number isn’t a certain good enough number, when what she really wants to focus on is that her kids know that they are loved and have enough to eat and that they hear that they are cherished and so, so believed in.
Teachers deserve to make a million dollars a year. Truly. The teachers and the school counselors and everybody else who works in those buildings. I learned from my mama that if you work in a school, you’re overworked and underpaid. And I signed up to go anyway. She leaves for work at 5:30 in the morning, when my dad leaves for work at the hospital, and oftentimes she comes home after the sun sets. And those tests are coming. So the other day, I drove up to Virginia and interrupted her World Geography class and brought cookies and demanded that everyone stop learning for at least ten minutes, please. She loves those kids. They are her new love outlet, now that I live so far away from her. I am thankful that they take such good care of her, and I’m glad they have her as a teacher, because I know that every single one of them knows that they are loved.
I am so thankful for educators who do not let the obsession with metrics and numbers and data and accountability and standardized testing – all of the things that get in the way of doing what you want to do, which is love your kids and also teach them some things – stop you.
It does not go unnoticed. I am so thankful that you are there to love on the kids. Please do not, for the love of God, stop loving the kids. It does not go unnoticed. And I know it is thankless, and I know it is not on your formal evaluation, and I know it is probably not a thing that they taught you how to do in grad school. But then you got to your classroom on the first day and you were greeted by this group of kids who needed so much love from you, that you figured out how to give it, because without that, you’re just teaching vocabulary and anatomy and enforcing dress code.
They need so much love, you guys. And we are gonna need so much courage and energy to pull that off. Let me tell you: sometimes horrible things happen to these kids and there’s not a darn thing that we or the Department of Social Services can do about it. We can’t stop the bad things, and we can’t fix the bad things, and sometimes we can’t even make them even a little bit more bearable. But we can be in the room. We can sit there. I have a desk, you have a classroom. It is the same. We can be present. We can hold space. And I know that you only have so many minutes in a day to teach all of the things that you have to teach them on a particular day, so you send them to me. And I love that. That is what I signed up to do. But if I keep them for too long, even though they have gone through half a box of tissues and their lives are falling apart, then they’ve missed half of Calculus and I get a phone call because I am supposed to be doing other things and running scheduling meetings. It just makes my heart melt, you guys. Because they need so much love, and I have a lot of love to give, but instead I’m supposed to be asking them about Algebra 2. And you have so much love to give, but you’re supposed to be literally teaching them about Algebra 2. And so their lives are falling apart and no one is able to give them the love and time and attention they need, so a lot of their needs and hurts and worries are having to stay in their head and so they can’t even pay attention to Algebra 2 because they’re worried about so many other things. And it’s the system, it’s the system, it’s the system. So I’m leaving the system, which I think is a shame for a lot of reasons, but I promise I did the best I could and left everything out on the field, with all the crying and the tissues and the listening. I’ve been doing a lot of rouge counseling in between my scheduling meetings, because I am nothing if not a troublemaker, and it’s just not sustainable.
I think if we just love the kids, they’ll stop dropping out. If they hear how much we believe in them, and that school is a place where they are safe and cherished and their dreams can come alive, I think they’ll stay. I think if we focus on loving the kids, they’ll get what they need from us. Some of them are hard to love. They need the most of it. You know this already. They deserve all the love we can give them. Sometimes this means getting to school before 7am and sometimes it means grading their essays all day long on Saturday and it will mean things that they never even see and will never know about or thank you for. But they deserve it. Please keep going. They are all fighting things that are so hard, let me tell you. Sometimes we see the nice exterior and the laughing, sometimes we hear the real stories, but on the inside, they are really all just trying to keep it together one way or another.
Sometimes you love the kids and their grades are still bad and they still don’t seem to care and you may be tempted to think that they are an onion – they are not. They are an apple through and through. You may not get to the core, but you’re staring a process that someone else will finish if we just keep going. I’ve seen it happen. It will take every single one of us – we all need to be on this team – but we cannot give up on a kid. They are all apples. Any time you think one is an onion, it just means we haven’t gotten to the core. YET.
A kid in my homeroom dropped out a couple of weeks ago. I wish he had stayed. I will always wonder about him. During my internship in grad school (the first time), I met with a sophomore girl pretty much every day. I think just about everyone before me had given up on her. She wore a teal fuzzy North Face jacket every day. So many hard things had happened to her in her life, and some of them no one had heard about until she told me. She dropped after I left and got a job at a new school. I have never been more sad about anything in my life. Every time I see a girl with that same jacket, my heart stops beating.
The professor in grad school (the first time) who I famously did not get along with told me that I wasn’t going to be a good guidance counselor, and I told her that she was wrong. But you know what? I’d rather be a good listener and space holder and safe harbor than a good guidance counselor.
So love the kids. Start there. And love each other. Remember that one, too. Please, please don’t stop loving the kids. I am going to go off and love a different batch of humans, and I cannot put my finger on it yet, you guys, but I think God is stirring up this big mess of stuff inside me and I think He's going to use it to change the world. But I will never forget how much you are up against, school people. There is such a need for your hearts and your gifts and your love. All the tests and the things and all of it -- I know. I see it, too. I'm sorry I couldn't stay longer, but there are other things I need to do, for Maggie and the world and the girl in the green fuzzy jacket. Never forget how brave you are for loving kids, and never forget that YOU are loved, too.
All MY love,
Amanda the non-onion