Photograph by Roland Klose
Dear Mr. President,
I’m a teacher so I see a part of our country you might not see. I wanted to let you know what you might not be seeing as you split your time between DC and Florida and rallies in between.
The day you were elected, my school was silent. A large American high school, as diverse as anything the world has to offer. Almost 80 languages are spoken at home in our district. Our hallways, galleries of the many skin tones and languages the globe has to offer, were hushed. In the lobby, the gym and in classrooms kids were scared and whispering, listening to each other, projecting and predicting what their future in your country would be. We have a graduation rate of over 95 percent. Almost all our kids go to college or into the military. These are not the “devastated” “disastrous” “failing” students you have been pontificating about. These are sought after consumers and workers in the making. And they are freaked out. Why? For a reason I am quite confident you will not understand. Today’s kids, unlike you and the pack of personalities you have empowered and surrounded yourself with, care about others, often more than themselves. They are worried, not just for themselves, but for their neighbors.
One of the tenants of our modern understanding of education is the work of Maslow. In the plainest words, humans cannot learn if they don’t feel safe and supported. And to that end, Mr. President, you and your actions, especially on Twitter and with executive orders, have prevented and slowed kids’ ability to learn and grow into the workers you have been claiming to support. DeVos is an offensive pick for a myriad reasons, yet I want to draw your focus on how you are hurting kids’ ability to cognitively grow. You. You are hurting kids. You are the problem, as the politics and the hate and the bluster and the cruelty and the short-sighted claims and the naked aggression are hurting children. Policies of exclusion and threats, and the unclear and poorly executed details of those policies have caused great anxiety in homes across the country. This anxiety harms learning and learners. Please, be better for kids.
Before you turn or spin or dodge this reality, before you go off the rails during a press conference or on Twitter, or blame teachers, allow me to be proactive. You have made your choices. I would like you to make better choices, choices which create a safer society for America’s kids and families. We, educators and students, are making our choices. Here is what is happening in classrooms to build a stronger America.
We are reading Romeo and Juliet. Just yesterday, a freshman remarked “This feud between Montagues and Capulets is like how the election tore us apart as a country, and it’s the desperate kids who want to connect and accept who get hurt.” From the mouths of babes.
Upperclassman are reading Hamlet. The kids are engaged in the 300 year-old debate on Hamlet’s sanity. His unpredictable behavior has them connecting him to you. The students are worried about Ophelia, and about Ivanka and Melania. They see Claudius’ advisor, Polonius, is a crooked man, and may not have everyone’s best interests in mind. Look around your cabinet sir, and stop letting anyone poison your ears. At the risk of spoiling a great work, the play does not end well, for any one. I hope the drama playing out in DC ends far better, for all of us.
We are reading Emerson and Thoreau and they are helping the students rely on themselves, to question institutions, and to look within. And as they look within for direction and inspiration, they are ready to advocate for and defend their neighbors. They will not go quietly into that good night. They want a better world, they want to learn, they want to work for something and for others.
This generation understands servant leadership in a way you are not modeling. So, my lesson plan for you is: learn from the youth, or spend the rest of your term fighting against them. Advocate for them, or be undone by them. Study your history, especially in this great country. Youth movements rarely fail. Outdated, out of touch, self serving regimes usually do. This failure is often preceded by great damage and distress, which it takes generations to repair. So, if you truly care about all Americans, and the children of this country you invoked often as you campaigned for votes, act like it.