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Social Issues

I couldn't ignore the love


Part of the reason why I chose to be an education major was that my college was famous– in conservative evangelical circles, at least– as being one of the best colleges for a teaching degree. The school prides itself on churning out high-quality teachers. This wasn’t even implied– it was directly stated by many of my education professors, and in nearly every symposium I had to attend, the speaker would tell us that we would go out into the Christian K-12 world and be without equal.

Part of the reason they were so arrogant about their program was that they believed in the  “traditional” or “teacher-centered” model. In all of my classes, I was assigned books and articles to read that were “student-centered” or “progressive” and told to find everything that was “wrong” with that method. The bulk of my education classes was dedicated to teaching me how to be a dictator. I was told my students were the enemy, that I was essentially a combatant, fighting against the natural inclinations of those little hellions. My students were not to be my friends– I was there to teach them, and that was it. You do not talk about any of your personal experiences, you do not ever share anything from your personal life, and you do not ask about theirs. The only thing you need to know, as their teacher, is what their classroom performance is like.

I finished my nightmarish student internship, graduated, and ended up a graduate assistant for Liberty University.

When I showed up on campus a few weeks before the start of the school year, I was enrolled in a course intended to give the graduate assistants a helpful boost– many of us were coming from English or writing programs,but not me. I walked into that classroom on the first day believing that I had this in the bag. I was an education major. I’d graduated from one of the best education programs in the country.

I could not have been more wrong, but it took me a long time to figure that out. Now, when I look back at my behavior and attitude in that classroom– and throughout that first semester– all I can do is cringe. I want to run into that room, slap my hand over my mouth, and starting shouting “don’t listen to her! She has no idea what she’s saying! She’s going to change her mind in like four months, it’ll be ok!”

There were many things I struggled with during that course– but, in the end, everything I struggled with so violently all comes back to how I’d been taught to view my students: they were the enemy, and that was the only way I had for thinking about them. My education had completely dehumanized “student.” The way my professors talked about these children . . . words like monster, hellion, and demon were all common. I was told that the only way students can learn is if they fear you first. “Love is the highest motivator,” they would say, “but fear is where you have to begin. If they are not afraid of you, then you need to make sure they are, or you won’t get anything accomplished.”

I was Jane Andrews, from Anne of Avonlea, confidently telling Anne “If my pupils won’t do as I tell them I shall punish them . . . Give them a good whipping, of course.”

During those weeks, I was constantly being challenged by many of my classmates, and by the reading assignments. The first time that my professor handed out an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, I had to fight the compulsion I felt to burn it. He talked so much about the basic need for teachers to love their students, and as amazing as all of that sounded, I didn’t know what that was supposed to look like in practice. How did I love– while needing absolute control over my classroom? Over my students?

When one of my classmates got up to deliver a presentation, I could barely keep the inner scoffer and the outer eye-rolls at bay. Amber* was passionate about her area of study. She was a linguistics major, and desperate to get to China to be an ESL teacher. She’d spent her entire college career bent on that, and consequently was one of the most informed women I’d ever met. Each of us had to give a presentation on something we could encounter as ENGL 101 teachers, and she chose ESL students. For almost half an hour she talked about the specific challenges that ESL students face as college students in a writing course, and what we could do to help them. She emphasized the need for us to go above-and-beyond for our ESL students, that they need us in a way native English speakers don’t.

And that’s when the eye-rolling started.

Because, I’d been taught that you “teach to the middle,” and if students fall behind, welp, that’s not your problem. If they need help, they can find it– through tutors, whatever. It certainly wasn’t something I had the time to think or worry about.

I listened to her anyway– disagreeing with her the entire time, convinced that she was wrong and that she would change her mind the second she entered an actual classroom– but I listened. And I continued listening to her over the few weeks we had left. I started to hear something in her voice. It wasn’t just passion– it was love. She was brimming with all the love she felt for her someday students. Listening to her talk was like hearing her pull children into her arms and do everything she could to help them. Listening to her made me feel like that’s what listening to Jesus could be like.

She loved.

And it was hard to ignore.

Hearing her, and then watching her, getting to know her . . . it slowly undid a lot of the damaging things I’d been taught. Over time, I grew to respect her. She became, over the next few years, what I tried to envision for myself when I thought of myself as teacher.

So, the first time I had an ESL student in my class, she was the first person I went to. I asked for her help, and she treated me with the exact same love I’d felt from her in class. She helped me with materials and resources, helped me get my feet under me. When I had questions, I went to her, and she would help me figure out a way to help my student. Love is patient, love is kind, and she exemplified that to me every day. Knowing her gave me the passion I needed– the bone-deep conviction– that I had to help this young man. He wasn’t going to fall through the cracks– not on my watch. It actually became one of the best creative outlets I had that semester; I became obsessed with figuring out ways to help him develop the intuition English speakers have. We tried short stories, and graphic novels, comic books, and he ate it all up. Sometimes he just came to my office for the conversation.

I learned to love my students, and it was through loving them that I was able to see them as people– people with needs, dreams, struggles. I could ask the question “hey, is something going on? Do you need some help?” and have my Browning-logo sporting, camo-wearing student break down into tears– and then become one of the best students in that class.

It’s a lesson I’m trying to extend to more than just my students.

Social Issues

centered on love– and learning to show it


Two weeks after I quit my soul-sucking bank job, I drove across the country and over the mountains–by myself. It was a harrying adventure, especially when I got to West Virginia and I didn’t have money for the toll. I ended up driving through the “country roads” John Denver loves to sing about until about one o’clock in the morning.

I will never, ever, do that again.

But, I managed to make it to Lynchburg, Virginia in one piece, got everything taken care of, moved into the house I’d be sharing with two other girls, and showed up on campus Monday morning bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I had arrived about a month before classes were to officially start, as being a GA meant I had to take a short course of teaching college writing. I was excited, and figured I had a handle on it. I’d been a secondary education major at a university that was pretty famous in Christian circles for its education program, so how hard could it be?

I had no idea what I was getting in to.

Here’s what I was “taught” about education (and by “taught” I mean “bludgeoned into thinking is true”):

  • Repetition is the key to learning.
  • The purpose of Christian education is to evangelize. Actual education is secondary. (There was a three-sentence statement that basically said this that I had to regurgitate onto every quiz and test I took in any of my education classes. Thankfully, I have forgotten it.)
  • One-room schoolhouses were the BEST.
  • You should rue the day corporal punishment was no longer allowed.
  • The NEA is the worst thing that has ever happened. EVER.
  • Progressive education is a dirty word. John Dewey, and I quote: “introduced socialistic, anti-Christian philosophy in the schools. The Bible was separated from academic studies.” That was his only contribution. Oh, and he wrote and signed the Humanist Manifesto, which “enunciated secular humanism as a religion.”
  • Sight-say is of the devil.
  • New Math teaches that if a student thinks 2 + 2 = 5, it doesn’t matter.  (This is patently false.)
  • You should never want to be a public school teacher. Ever. Also, ignore our book that tells school founders to pay you $15k a year salaried, and yet force you to work 80 hours a week, minimum. If you go to a public school because they’ll pay you twice that, well, then, you’re a sell-out and God will punish you. (Also, this book was updated in 2009, I think, and they modified the $15k number from $10k to reflect minimum wage.)
  • If you hear the words “student-centered learning,” you should run away screaming.
  • Everything in the Chronicle of Higher Education is complete rubbish.
  • Never, ever smile at your students before Thanksgiving.
  • Have a plan (i.e., a pre-determined discipline progression), or your students will dominate you.
  • Psychology is a pseudo-science.
  • You are not your student’s friend, or their buddy. You should not care what they think.

I could go on, but I think you get my drift.

I walked into my very first classroom at Liberty, and I met a wonderful man. He was my professor, and I have never met a kindler, gentler, humbler, more loving person anywhere else. The first time he explained how being a teacher means adapting to the needs of your students, I was . . . mystified. When one of my fellow classmates gave a presentation on working with ESL students should require extra effort on the teacher’s part, I internally tut-tutted her. If they can’t make it to my standard, then that’s their problem, not mine. They’ll just need to take the course again.

I loved my professor, but I honestly thought of him as, well, terribly misguided. He just didn’t understand that “traditional education” was the better way. That being “progressive” or “student centered” would only lead to being an ineffective teacher that would have to lower her standards.

And then I started teaching fifty freshman writing students.

Heilige scheisse.

Everything I thought I knew about teaching failed. Failed spectacularly. At the end of my first semester, my boss– a magnificent, if terrifying woman, and one of the best supervisor’s I’ve ever had– pulled me into her office and told me that I was a breath away from getting sacked, and if I didn’t get my act together in the next semester, I was a goner.

I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. There were procedural things I could fix, and I did, but I couldn’t just magically transform myself into a better teacher. I read through all of my evaluations, repeatedly. I contemplated all the things that had turned into a disaster that semester, and I tried to figure out what had gone wrong. Eventually, I did see it.

The problem was me.


That hurt.

But, once I saw what I had done, it broke my heart. I had punished my students, constantly, for “failing.” I had guilted them, and handed them diatribes and discipline. And something my mother had taped to the front of our refrigerator came back to me:

No one has ever arisen out of a mountain of criticisms to please their accuser. 

Sure, I had followed the “sandwich method.” I think, in my heart, I really did care about my students. Their success mattered to me– their personal lives mattered to me… but my indoctrination absolutely forbade me from showing any of that.

The next semester, and the next year, I vowed things were going to be different. And they were.

I spent two hours a week with my ESL student, Hyun*, teaching him about articles and verb tense– outside of my scheduled office hours. Hyun continued coming to see me after that semester, just to chat.

I knew– knew— that Trevor* was a wonderful writer, but he needed some tough love to get there. He did, fighting with me the entire time, but by the end of the semester he came to my office to tell me that my refusal to accept his “good enough” had changed his life.

Instead of resorting to rebuke when Brandon* kept falling asleep in my class every day, I asked him if anything was going on. He started crying– Brandon, my camo-wearing, Browning-backpack-toting, combat-boot-stomping student– and told me that his father had leukemia and he was driving home three hours every day to see him in the hospital. I hugged him, and cried with him, and told him that I loved him, and we prayed for his father– who is now in remission, and wrote me a letter thanking him for taking the time with his son.

I recognized that James*, who was painfully shy, was brilliant and just needed a tiny push out of the nest. He’s now a published writer, part of Sigma Tau Delta, and is presenting at a conference in a few weeks.

I wanted to grow frustrated with Mark*, who was constantly absent, but I stopped. You don’t know what’s going on in his life, Samantha. Ask him. See if he needs help. Turns out he had contracted a rare virus while he had been deployed in Afghanistan and it had caused spinal degradation so bad it required major surgery. He came to me the day he had to officially withdraw from college and told me that my willingness to cry with him and pray with him was a reason he was going to come back to college, even if it was in a wheelchair.

Jessica* made me want to tear my hair out, she caused so many disruptions and distractions in class. But, I asked her to come to my office, and then I just asked her if she was ok. She broke down and told me she’d been raped, and she didn’t know what to do. It was the first time I had used my experience for good– to tell her that she was not alone, and that I would help her however she needed me. She is now in the honors program as an English major, and wants to be a teacher– and she’s organized several rape awareness campaigns on campus. The very first ones, at least that I’m aware of.

I’m not sharing any of these stories to brag about me, or anything I did in those situations. The only thing I did was throw away the evil idea that students should be less than human to teachers. That teachers are only there to deposit information in little brain-ATMs. The only thing I managed to do was reject a system of living that tried to cut me off from people– that wanted me to treat their existence like it didn’t matter to mine.

I’ve never found love and grace in a fundamentalist mindset– and that is the most frightening thing imaginable, because love is the only thing that has the power to change the world, or to make a difference.