Dear Senator Sasse,
I am one of your constituents. I teach in a public high school in Nebraska. Last summer, I attended a town hall you held in Papillion, and I was impressed with your candor and demeanor. Even though I disagree with you politically, I want to hear what you have to say, and I usually keep my mouth shut.
But I take issue with the op-ed you wrote for the New York Times. Next week, I will begin my 17th year of teaching. I’ve taught in Utah, Nebraska, and as a grad assistant in Ohio while earning my master’s degree. I’ve taught a variety of subjects and thousands of students at this point, and here’s one of the many things I’ve learned: there is more than one kind of work ethic.
I’ll concede that I’ve had students who tested my patience because of their lack of will to work–though more often than not, those kids actually worked crazy hard in other classes or at their jobs. I’ve had kids who worked three jobs to help their parents pay the bills. I’ve had kids who took AP classes and did sports and did extracurricular activities and somehow still made time to hold down jobs. I teach mostly juniors and seniors in high school, and nearly every single one of them has a job. They do not lack work ethic.
I’ve been a newspaper adviser for six years now, and every editor-in-chief I’ve had has been a combination of the following: AP student. Honors student. Athlete. Dancer. Club member. Volunteer. And they all have also had jobs.
But I kind of expect that of my EICs. So let me tell you a little about the kids who aren’t the “top-tier” student.
The student who has the emotional work ethic to get out of bed every morning and go to school in a space he feels unsafe because he is Muslim. Because he is liberal. Because he is conservative. Because he is not athletic. Because his grades are failing. Because he is gay.
Or the student who has the emotional work ethic to get out of bed every morning and go to school in a space she feels unsafe because she is Catholic. Because she is overweight. Because she is skinny. Because her grandmother is undocumented. Because she is a woman. Because she is queer.
There is more than one kind of work ethic, and the kind you write about in your op-ed is valuable, to be sure. But to not acknowledge the emotional work ethic placed upon students today is short-sighted and, frankly, insulting.
My students work hard. They might not be working hard in my class on a given day, but in 17 years, I’ve learned to step back and learn about that kid–what else does he have going on in his life? Is he working hard someplace else?
To close, a quick story about two students I taught last year. Senior boys, who took my introductory journalistic writing class. This is a class comprised mostly of freshmen and sophomores who want to be on newspaper or yearbook staff. These boys were graduating, and therefore, would not be on staff. I had no idea why they were my students, and initially, I was suspicious of how long those two senior boys would last. Journalistic writing is not for the weak–we write and we talk to people we don’t know, and I make kids draft and draft and draft their stories.
Yet every day, those two boys showed up and learned. They wrote. They revised. They asked questions. They revised again. They had their work critiqued by the entire class.
They did not need my class to graduate, and could have taken a study hall. Their lives outside of school were not easy. But they stayed and successfully completed a class they did not need.
Work ethic? Yeah, they had it in spades.
I implore you, Senator, to spend some time during your recesses and talk to teachers and talk to students about their work. Go visit the good people at Nebraska Loves Public Schools and see how you can help their mission.
The students of Nebraska do have a work ethic. They might not all be detassling corn in the summers, but they are working physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Acknowledge them.
Julie L. Rowse