It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, and while I appreciate the Panera gift card I received from a grateful parent, what I really want is to come to work without thinking about barricades or escape routes. I want to teach without fearing for my life. This week’s shooting in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, left eight students wounded and one dead. The ripple in the news will quickly vanish; we’ve become so accustomed to hearing about school violence. As a teacher, it’s hard to feel appreciated when thoughts and prayers are the only solutions offered for protecting teachers and students.
The truth is, I have an aluminum bat and a set of rubber door wedges sitting in my Amazon cart. I hover between clicking “buy” and not. Am I being proactive or am I just trying to convince myself that I have some measure of control over my environment? The bat and wedges have been in the cart for months. I can’t quite admit that they might be necessary.
Last summer, I met an American who teaches in France. He asked, with the expression of someone who thinks he’s posing a ridiculous question, whether we really worried about being shot in school. He couldn’t believe that was possible. My husband, also a teacher, and I assured him it was true. He ordered us a drink.
None of this is normal, but over the years, fear has become part of the job. The feeling hovers over me during everyday scenarios: when I hear shouting in the hallway, see a kid wearing an unseasonable coat, spot a backpack lying unattended. My mind goes into defense mode. It’s exhausting. In 2012, after the shooting in Newtown, my co-teacher and I formed an escape plan involving our tiny windows and a fire ladder. We knew it probably wouldn’t work, but at least it was something and it made us feel a little bit less afraid.
There are those who think that arming teachers is something, too, but that is a solution I refuse to accept. Accidents happen, and my colleagues have had wallets and purses stolen from their desks; why would a gun be any more secure? I know too many emotionally and psychologically fragile kids to put a weapon anywhere near them. My job is to keep them safe and I don’t think proximity to a gun is the way to do that.
I do think that one part of the solution is better visibility and more support. I work hard to get to know my students, but I recognize that I do a better job of it with 23 kids – rather than 33 – in a class. Counselors, too, are far more empowered to do their jobs when they have fewer kids to assist. Most of the school employees I know want to do more for their students, but they simply can’t get to all of them.
Beyond what we’re able to do within the classroom, there needs to be greater access to mental health resources. Parents often complain about their inability to find care that’s affordable, available, and of good quality. Many providers no longer accept insurance, have waiting lists that go for weeks if not months, or simply don’t provide the necessary support; a friend mentioned recently that her child’s psychiatric caregiver didn’t seem to listen when she listed the negative side effects she’d observed from medication, but she didn’t feel she had options for other places to go.
There’s also the increased anxiety and fear that the threat of school violence causes within schools. Students worry, wondering whether the next shooting – because it seems as though there’s always another – will be the one that gets them, or someone they love. Educators worry as well: about our students, about ourselves, about our own children, if we are parents.
In 2007, my school was directly impacted by the shooting at Virginia Tech. I was in my first year there and did not know the recent graduate of our school who was killed, but I saw clearly how the loss gutted my colleagues and our community. I also saw how our state responded, creating policy changes for mental health procedures and increasing funding for community services. Tech produced much-needed change, but it was only after THIS horrible and bloody catalyst. We shouldn’t only achieve these measures once they’re attached to a body count.
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Teacher appreciation is already finite: one week, at best, to offset a societal mindset that either vilifies the profession or perceives it as a calling that is so inherently rewarding, it should transcend payment. Teachers are grateful to be recognized for their work, but I know that I, for one, would be so much more grateful for the ability to do my job without looking over my shoulder, fearing that today will be the day I’ll be called on to do much more than discuss “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Is it too much to want that peace of mind for myself and for my students?