I survived a school shooting and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. Over the four years since that event I’ve thought a lot about school violence. I never planned on publicly writing much about school violence but today I am tired. Not in the sense of needing a nap, but a deep, in the bone kind of exhaustion and I wonder if other teachers feel the same given recent events. Rather than offer another argument for common sense gun legislation or propose a series of solutions to address school violence, I’m going to try and describe the reality of being a teacher in this era. My purpose is two-fold. First, I hope that non-teachers gain a little more insight into what it is like to teach when violence in schools is a constant threat and regularly in the news. Secondly, I hope teachers reading this feel proud of what they do. Hopefully, if you are a teacher, you already feel proud. But, if the constant attacks on public education, chronic lack of funds, and pressure for your students to perform have you down, take a moment this weekend and remember it takes courage to teach right now.
"Rarely is it mentioned that a teacher’s fundamental need is to keep her students safe. So, when that ability gets torn away within our school walls, it really is the worst thing that can possibly happen."
Teachers care deeply about students. Teachers think about their students often, especially the ones who really have it rough. The phrase, “my kids” is a real thing and every teacher I’ve worked with, even the grumpy ones, use that phrase. For the few hours we interact with our students per day there is an overwhelming sense of responsibility. A responsibility to promote as much learning as possible, but more importantly, a responsibility to keep our kids safe.
Why does every school shooting seem to touch teachers deeply across the country? Empathy. We can so easily imagine that school being our school, those students being our students, and those teachers being us. We talk a lot about the fundamental needs of students – they need to feel safe. Rarely is it mentioned that a teacher’s fundamental need is to keep her students safe. So, when that ability gets torn away within our school walls, it really is the worst thing that can possibly happen.
Every time a teacher goes to work she knows she is entering a “gun free” zone. And most teachers at most schools know they are entering a “gun free” zone without consistent, on-campus police presence. In effect, we know we are highly exposed and vulnerable to a violent attack. While rarely in the forefront of the mind while doing the work of a teacher, this knowledge lies immediately in the background. Most teachers have a plan. I am probably an extreme case having survived a shooting already, but I’ll use myself as the example. In my old classroom (I’m working outside the classroom right now) I knew every single loose desk leg that could easily be ripped off and thrown or swung at an active shooter, all the furniture that I could move in front of the door and how to keep the path for that movement clear of desks and supplies. I knew where all the heavy but handy items were located for throwing. I knew where I’d tell my students to go and where I’d be if a shooter tried to get in my classroom, and most importantly I knew that my door would already be locked because it was always locked. I knew this plan would help only if my classroom wasn’t the first classroom. And, I knew that my plan stood a good chance of failing and was irrelevant if we weren’t in my classroom. Most importantly, I knew how to teach well and not let the fear of school violence impact my instruction and the experience of my students. I do not believe that I am the only teacher who balances a personalized active shooter plan with the work of teaching.
As we look at a gridlocked government, a fierce and often nasty debate on solutions, and more school shootings, it’s easy to despair. A teacher friend pointed out just yesterday that our kids are going to grow into voters very soon and are getting fed up with our code red reality. Unfortunately, many of them are watching the videos surfacing of students under rapid gun fire. Our kids will grow up and I believe most will feel clarity on this issue. So, what can we as teachers do about this? We can teach and do it well. Our kids may end up being the long-term solution.
By Joseph Pazar