Teaching Profession Q&A

Dear Students, Here’s Why I Quit: A Teacher’s Moving Letter Explains Her Decision

By Elizabeth Heubeck — June 08, 2023 6 min read
Kerry Graham
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The deadly, post-graduation shooting in Richmond, Va., this week is the latest reminder of the ongoing violence touching and surrounding our nation’s schools. Since 2018, there have been 168 school shootings that resulted in injuries or deaths, according to an Education Week analysis. In Baltimore, alone, 19 students were killed in shootings—many of them on or near school campuses—between May 2022 and May 2023.

We know this violence has an extreme impact on students’ mental health. It also affects their teachers.

Kerry Graham is one of those teachers. She spent 11-plus years teaching high school English in the Baltimore public schools before resigning in the fall of 2022 to deal with both personal and professional grief. After departing, Graham wrote an opinion piece in the Baltimore Banner. The love letter of sorts to her former students, whom she refers to as “lovelies,” went viral. Education Week spoke to Graham, who generously shared an account of her personal journey in the profession—from her preconceived notions prior to starting her career to the “pure joy” she found in teaching her students, to the burden of grief that eventually became too much to shoulder.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Did you choose to teach in Baltimore?

I’m from Baltimore. It’s the only place I would want to teach. I didn’t consider going to other districts, even though being in Baltimore certainly has its challenges.

Talk about your journey to becoming a teacher.

In my mid-to-late 20s, after having lived abroad, done some volunteer work and graduate school, I was working at a nonprofit in Baltimore that provided housing and supportive services to unhoused teenagers and young adults. So many of the people I met through that experience had dropped out of high school. I always had appreciated the connection between education and financial support, success. I wanted to try to be more proactive instead of reactive about that particular problem. I did an alternative-certification program as part of the New Teacher Network. When I went into it, I did not know how long I would make it [as a teacher]. I was thinking maybe five years. It became 11.

Why did you think you might only last five years in the teaching profession before you even started it?

I was astonished I was doing it in the first place. And frankly, because it’s so hard. I didn’t know what my stamina would be.

What kinds of preconceived notions did you have about what it would be like to teach in the Baltimore public school system?

The school district has a horrible reputation. People don’t take it seriously. People say really critical things about the students. I had the benefit of meeting young people from Baltimore at my job at a nonprofit. It gave me insight into the fact that maybe the challenges aren’t because of the students but because of the myriad issues in our city that they’re contending with. I did anticipate seeing students who didn’t have access to basic needs, let alone the luxury of putting education first. I knew I would see that. I knew I was going to see some sort of disconnect in the district to meet those needs. That’s what I saw.

A student who attended school where you taught was killed this March at a park near the school. How does the violence impact your ability to teach?

(Long pause) It almost feels impossible at times. I know there’s been an increasing level of interest in trauma-informed responses and I certainly appreciate that. I also know it’s hard to put into practice in the classroom setting given instructional demands, interruptions, and behavioral issues. It’s hard to remember how hard it is, that our students have dealt with so much loss and witnessed some very painful things.

How has indirectly bearing witness to this violence affected you personally?

In fall of 2020, two of my students were shot. One of them was killed and one survived. The night after I got back from their vigil, I was on Zoom [teaching during the pandemic], and one of my lovelies [students] during the first period told me that one of my most beloved lovelies had been shot. Then sixish months later, I found out that another of my lovelies had died. Being the adult in the room, and also having to process my own feelings, and honor how I feel, and recognize that I have a job to do … it’s a hard line.

And then, on a personal note, my brother died in a car accident immediately before the school year 2021. That was my first foundational loss. It was my first insight into what these lovelies go through. I thought I understood it. I was like, I can’t concentrate, I can’t form sentences today, I can’t be patient with anyone today. So for me to realize that this is what they experience, this is some version of what they go through, how hard that must be for them. And to know they’ve gone through it more and when they’re younger. It’s worse for them. I know the struggles I had. And I am so sad that the lovelies have to live that life.

You wrote that, before your students would leave for the weekend, you would shout: “I love you!” Why?

It was just natural. I always tell people in my life that I love them. One thing I really enjoyed in this district, and one of the reasons I said I couldn’t go to another district, is because of the culture. It would be hard to find a Baltimore school teacher who doesn’t tell their students they love them; we just form really meaningful relationships with students. I think it’s part of the school culture.

Could you elaborate on that?

I don’t want to say that our students don’t have support in other areas of their lives outside of school because they absolutely do. I think they’re also better at finding and forming relationships outside of their household. I didn’t do that in high school. My parents met my needs. I wasn’t interested in forming relationships with my teachers that were particularly emotional. In Baltimore, the lovelies are just good at it. They’re open, curious. When that is met with a teacher who’s willing to have an emotional relationship, it’s easy on both ends to form one.

Do you think it’s a good idea to form these emotional relationships with students?

It wasn’t a choice. I wouldn’t change it. And, quite honestly, that is why I was a teacher—because I loved them. I didn’t particularly enjoy teaching. Lesson planning mostly sucked. I really didn’t like grading. But loving the lovelies was magical. That was why I was able to stick through it even when things got pretty impossible.

Can you tell me about why you left?

My mental health suffered so much. My brother died in a car accident on a Friday night. I found out early Saturday morning, and that Monday, I was supposed to go back to school for a week of teacher preparation before school started. I didn’t go that week, but I did go on the first week of school. Apparently, last year was one of the hardest years for teachers, ever. I was dealing with what was apparently a widespread, professionally challenging year on top of personal tragedy and trauma. I did my best to stick with it.

The anniversary of my brother’s accident lies at the beginning of the school year. I started the year. It was just too much. Part of it was that my classes this year were the most ESOL-heavy they’ve ever been, and with the lowest level of English proficiency, which would have been challenging if I had been in a good mental space. But I wasn’t. I knew I was going to be doing a disservice to the lovelies.

Do you have any advice for school leaders?

As a teacher, I tried to have as democratic a classroom as possible. I would have the lovelies write the rubrics with me: how I would grade them, etcetera. I gave them as much voice in their educational experience as possible to make it as meaningful as possible. I wish school leaders did the same with teachers. I wish we were trusted more to make professional choices. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have guidelines and oversight, but I wish we were trusted more.

Advice for teachers?

To take care of themselves. To know that it’s OK if taking care of yourself means leaving.

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