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No Easy Answers: Dealing with Reality of School Violence as an Educator

No Easy Answers: Dealing with Reality of School Violence as an Educator

Before my body began to make creaking noises every time that I stood up from my desk, my desk was in a classroom.

My classrooms were loud and covered in artwork and glitter. The bright and shiny faces looking back at me were sometimes in need of special education and mostly around 4 to 6 years old. My classrooms were a place where students played, experimented, and learned to read. They had dirty hands and paint on their shirts at the end of the day. My classrooms were a safe space filled with tangible examples of learning.

I loved being a teacher.

The real world was suspended from 8 AM to 3 PM and we—my students and I, as a classroom team—built a reality on the themes we explored. We followed stories both fictional and nonfictional while working through lessons. We held art shows and crafted ocean rafts. We sang opera and danced the jitterbug.

As a teacher, I was lucky; I taught a curriculum I wrote to students I loved, alongside parents and administrators who believed in me and my approach. Don’t get me wrong; I still had to work a second and, sometimes, third job to live my lavish lifestyle that included eating every day and occasionally going out with friends. But, I loved what I did, and my students made it all worthwhile.

I believe that many teachers feel similarly about their own jobs. I also believe that, in recent years, many teachers have felt the tone of their work shift as an all-too-real, entirely politicized, and sometimes violent world has crept into the classroom.

For me, it happened one morning when, instead of announcements and the Pledge of Allegiance, we had an instructional coach come over the PA system telling us to move inside our classrooms and lock our doors. This was a brand-new and disturbing message. I’m a strong and independent woman, though, and a kindergarten teacher, and I pride myself on an ability to react quickly and calmly. I moved my kindergarten students to centers, directed my teacher’s aide to keep things under control, and walked out, locking the door behind me. I went straight to the front office with my class list to find out what was actually going on. The hallways were empty of students and staff, doors were closed, and everything was silent—very unusual on a rare temperate New Orleans’ day. In the front office, the mood was flustered and scattered. I learned that the bank that bordered on our school parking lot had been robbed by a man who had proceeded to jump the fence onto school property and steal a child’s bike to make his escape. This was my first experience in a lockdown situation. I failed miserably.

As the years went on and horrible things happened at Columbine High School in Colorado, Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, and many more, the schools I taught in began to plan for these kinds of events and worse to help ensure that students and teachers own a means of escape when they—tragically—become the targets of violence.

Shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the school I was teaching at in New York City conducted a drill where we left the safety of our classrooms in cold and snowy weather and walked two blocks to a nearby church—the alternate pickup point for parents in case of an emergency. I was told about the drill in advance because my little ones, pre-K students both typically and atypically developing, often needed extra time getting their warm coats on. The warning made me anxious—for 4- to 5-year-olds, making it two blocks down a busy street is a significant amount of time to become distracted, bored, and lost. I bit my nails and paced until the drill was complete and we were back in the classroom with our blocks and circle time.

A few years after that, I had moved on from my role as a teacher and was working with schools as a consultant. On one school visit, I found myself in a pitch-black closet with 10 to 15 people I didn’t know, during an active shooter drill. Another time, I found myself hiding behind a locked door as an “intruder” looked in the library windows.

I understand that these drills, like fire drills, are an important tool for planning and peace of mind. However, for those of us who tend to creak upon standing and remember simpler days in the classroom, they are something we never imagined participating in. And, for all educators, they are a difficult, fearful, and unrequested addition to our job descriptions.

We’ve broached this tough topic in the Edmentum Educator Network Facebook group on a few occasions. One of our members, Kenia Brown, recently stated that in her school, “One of our trainings simulated gun fire (with blanks). I had a headache for days.” It may be difficult for the rest of the world to understand and believe, but drills like this are part of the new job description for educators.

A total of 20 states now have specific laws requiring "lockdown" drills in all public schools, and 30 states have broad emergency plans that may encompass lockdowns. On the FBI’s website, there are stat sheets and advice for preparing; there are business that have sprung up to help schools and business prepare for attacks. There are two trains of thought around dealing with active shooters in schools. The first is for students and staff to lock down, shelter in place, and hide; the other is to scatter and distract. The most common suggestion and plan is the “Run, Hide, Fight” model, which is exactly what it sounds like. I am not kidding—it is currently being studied as to which is most effective.

I cannot imagine my 4- to 6-year-old students “scattering and distracting”—let alone fighting back—in an active shooter situation with their crayons and glitter pens. Equally, I cannot imagine keeping them safe and quiet in the classroom without scarring them for life. I just know, that for me, the idea of leaving a child outside my locked-down classroom banging on the door to come in—to get safe and to avoid dying, even if doing so endangers the rest of the children already inside—would leave me in a puddle on the floor.

It is so far above every educators’ paygrade to make these critical, incredibly difficult decisions. I left the classroom 14 years ago, and most days I miss it, until I read about these real choices and situations. I can’t imagine the anxiety and stress that today’s teachers are faced with.

I have no real wisdom, insights, or solutions to offer on this topic. The best I can do is extend my true empathy and a little bit of basic information. The National Education Association provides the following guidance for how parents should explain a lockdown to their children:

  • Emphasize that schools are safe. Let children talk about their feelings; help children put their feelings into perspective and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately.
  • Take time to listen and be available to talk. Let children’s questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. Watch for clues that they may want to talk, such as hovering while you do the dishes or yardwork.
  • Observe children's emotional state. Some may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns can indicate a child's level of anxiety or discomfort.
  • Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate. Younger children need brief, simple information, whereas older children will have more questions and opinions.

More importantly, I also encourage you to lean on your network. There is no way around how painful and difficult this topic is. But, you all have access to support in the form of your fellow educators, whether they are colleagues in your current or former organizations; college program friends; or members of our Edmentum Educator Network. No matter how you build it, having a network of teachers to share the burden of being prepared for this reality of school violence is powerful. These are the people who get it, who will be there on the tough days, and who can remind you of the “why” for sticking with this hugely demanding and rewarding profession.

When I sat down to write this, I was planning to end by calling out the list of teachers killed in the past few years due to school violence so that we could remember and be mindful of how dangerous our jobs can be, but the list is too long, and it makes me too sad. Being an educator has never been easy, and adding this recent violence affecting the job is a cruel twist. Talking about it, being vulnerable, and asking for support are the best things we can all do to change the tide. I sincerely hope that our Edmentum Educator Network is one safe space for these conversations to start.