I’ve been in education for nearly two decades, much of it working preparing student teachers to lead their own classrooms. In the hours since the massacre in Uvalde, Texas on Tuesday, which killed 19 children and two of their teachers, I have forgotten what this work means.
I began teaching in 2005, shortly after two students shot and killed 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School. They’ve been around since Columbine 14 mass shootings at US schools that have killed at least 169 people and injured dozens more. Everyone who has taught since 1999 has taught through these mass shootings and wondered why nothing is being done to stop them. Returning to school after a shooting and trying to cover the basics of lesson planning, grading and student engagement is a sham — it feels like a terrible joke — for both the teachers and the students — which too expect to continue our work amidst so much avoidable suffering. It is cruel that more political and legal energy is being invested Gender Identity Legislation and the Books that children have access to than there is to protect their lives.
The most dramatic shift in my work occurred in the days after the Parkland High School shooting in Florida in February 2018. That day, I arrived in my Wisconsin college class as a shell of a person. My students were noticeably reserved – much calmer and less agitated than they were just a few weeks ago when we first met. I wondered if they were reconsidering their decision to pursue a career in education. The air was filled with fear and hopelessness. This semester had just started, and I had to somehow convince my students—and myself—that our time together on teaching methods and typical class topics was a worthwhile endeavor given the legislature’s pathetic refusal to enact sane gun control laws.
One of my students, a college junior named Rachel, said at the time that she was afraid of her career choice because “there is no teacher preparation to save lives.”
She is right to point out the folly. We are ill equipped to prepare our students for the possibility of a shooter entering their school. There is no way for me to walk up to my students with a book, worksheet, video, or lesson and say, “This is the thing that will prevent your death in a K-12 classroom,” because those materials don’t exist . With every school tragedy, it gets harder to convince a new cohort of prospective teachers that teaching is a worthwhile, sustainable, and viable career.
These student teachers know what I know: no person, program, school, or community can ensure their safety in the classroom. Becoming a teacher in the US means making a conscious decision to risk your life. Rachel is now a fifth grade teacher. I often wonder how she and her students are getting on.
Our politicians have put teachers and students in an impossible position. We are now tasked with doing the work that our elected officials refuse to do. In our own way, we organize and try to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of how to at least control these events when they occur. Michigan State University researcher Alyssa Hadley Dunn created the Facebook group classes the following daysbased on their research Teaching in the wake of national tragedies and injustices. The group was founded two years ago and now has nearly 20,000 members. It is growing by hundreds of members weekly.
Teachers at all levels are in a predictable frenzy, crafting resources to help students process avoidable tragedy, loss, and grief. We are also burdened with entering these educational spaces and hoping that we – and our students and their students – do not die.
Meanwhile, individual schools are being forced to do their best to avoid tragedy. Most schools have lockdown procedures, which is a bit like putting a band-aid over a severed artery. I vividly remember those active shooter drills and having to crouch next to a wall with 25 giggling middle school kids. A colleague of mine describes these measures as murder theater. As she pointed out in the hours after the latest school shooting, “Training children and teachers to rehearse for their own murders has not prevented their murders.” Murder theater appears to be the best lawmakers are willing to do to address the gun crisis facing our nation’s teachers and students are. School shooting after school shooting shows that this is not enough.
I’ll never know how to prepare my student teachers if a shooter walks into their classroom. I shouldn’t have to study.
Christina Wyman is a teacher and author living in Lansing, Michigan.
https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-commentary/no-way-to-prepare-teachers-for-mass-shootings-1359360/ Opinion: How Mass Shootings Changed Teaching