The Unlikely Activists

By Drs. Todd Hawley & Adam Jordan



If you’ve read our columns about education for The Bitter Southerner, y’all know we love teachers. Most folks think of them simply as deliverers of instruction, but they do much more.  Teachers are binding agents in our diverse society. On any given day, a teacher might serve as a de facto social worker, counselor, or caregiver. Teachers have influenced every profession on the planet — from the most outlandish arts to the most exacting sciences. Teachers are the hem in the fabric of our society.

Y’all might also know we love music. We had the idea to seek a few musicians, artists you’ve perhaps never heard of, and talk with them for a while about the influential teachers in their lives. We wanted to show in personal ways how teachers influence us all, because sometimes we focus too much on the fabric of society — but too little on the hem work of teachers.

To our surprise, we found one such story in the same household, that of Andrew and Amy Adkins of West Virginia. This amazing couple has combined their love for each other and for their respective professions to work for change in their state and community. Andrew, a songwriter and host of a radio show called “The Crow’s Nest” on Charleston’s WTSQ, and Amy, an elementary school teacher, love their work, their community, and their beautiful home state. And together, they use their voices to make a better South for everyone.

Let’s start with Andrew’s music. If you like quality songs written by folks who have lived the words they sing, you might enjoy Andrew’s latest album, “Who I Am.” A former member of the string band the Wild Rumpus, Andrew writes songs, like “Fragile Heart” and “Worries Behind,” that capture Appalachia and the religious and cultural roots of rural communities beautifully. When we first talked to Andrew, we asked him if he could think of an influential teacher in his life. He took less than a second to say, “My wife, Amy.”  

When Andrew speaks of Amy, he speaks not only with the love and admiration one hopes for in a spouse, but also with pride. He says her work as a teacher humbles him.

It was then we knew our theory about good teachers being a part of all of us was solid.

Amy Adkins has taught in West Virginia public schools for 15 years. She sees teaching as a profession that allows her to give back to her community and to leave the world a little better than she found it. To her, teaching is an art and she enjoys its challenges. But if you’ve followed the education news in West Virginia for even a minute, you know the state’s educators have gone on strike, won, and then gone on strike again. Legislators have responded to their activism with aggressive anti-strike legislation.

West Virginia teachers have been trailblazers, paving the way for teachers in other states to organize and advocate for public education. Low pay, skyrocketing healthcare costs, underfunded school programs, and deteriorating work conditions forced West Virginia teachers out of the classroom and onto the picket lines, to fight for their jobs and the kids they teach. Among them was Amy Adkins.

Amy Adkins never dreamed of becoming an activist, but she embraced the cause of her colleagues in West Virginia, anyway. She became an unlikely activist, and her story rings true to so many teachers who signed up for the classroom but were forced to the capitol steps.

Amy continually told us how she loves to teach students to read and develop as people — and how she never fancied herself on the picket line.

”I just want to teach kids how to read, not drive to the state capitol and strike,” she said.

But that is what she did and will continue to do, for as long as it takes, to improve conditions in her state. Amy thinks often of the things that West Virginia teachers have to be worried about, and at one point in our conversation she broke into tears when talking about school shootings. For Amy, teaching has become a political act — one that requires her to take action to help make things better for teachers, schools, and communities. We are happy she makes the drive to the state capitol. But we are sorry she has to.

For Amy and Andrew, this struggle is where their chosen professions overlap, and their powerful collaboration shines through. We interviewed them together via speaker phone. Everybody on the call was wrangling their own children while we all tried to conduct a professional conversation. But Amy and Andrew persisted because they have a story to tell and they want to tell it, because they still believe in the possibility of good endings.  

Andrew and Amy Adkins are an artist-teacher power couple, each supporting and influencing the other. Amy will keep teaching kids to read and calculate fractions during the daytime and protesting the influence of the Koch Brothers and charter schools with the time she has left. Andrew will keep writing songs that point out what he sees as wrong or unjust. In early March, he wrote and posted to YouTube a tribute to the striking West Virginia teachers — a pointed number that draws the connection between their struggle and the strikes of coal miners a century ago.

“I had to do something to help show my support for the teachers and it makes me so happy that it has become an anthem for the cause,” he said.

Their collaboration serves as an example to us all. It shows that people all over this region work to make a better South. If we can all just follow suit, we just might end up all right.  

If you happen upon Andrew or Amy at a show — or on the courthouse steps — hug their necks. And if you are a musician who would like to shout out your favorite teacher on Twitter, please use the hashtags #InfluentialTeachers and #SouthernSchooling, then tag us. Adam is @aj_wade, and Todd is @115coffeepot. These stories need telling.