Right now, as I write, we are just two weeks past the 26 tragic deaths of first graders, teachers and school administrators that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012 as a result of an apparently deranged young man who got his hands on semi-automatic guns. I hope that by the time you read this, the excruciating terror of these murders, and the circumstances that surrounded them, has eased a bit. Even so, I think that many of us will feel that our sense of safety has been permanently damaged.
At first, as the magnitude of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings emerged, I was devastated by the news, not only because of the unimaginable horror of what had happened, but also because of particular personal circumstances. I am from Brookfield, Connecticut, which shares a town border with Newtown. My sister teaches at Newtown High School, and I have a six-year-old first grader who I could hardly look at in the days that followed without tears welling up. However, as I talked with friends from all over the country during the following few days, I was struck by how powerfully devastated nearly everyone felt, and I think that this is because our belief that schools should be places of peace was destroyed so violently.
A permanent good that I hope may emerge from the evil that struck Sandy Hook Elementary School may be a shift in public understanding of teachers’ attitudes, dedication, work ethic and commitment to children. The six educators who were killed on December 14 – Rachel Davino, Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach and Victoria Soto – and their colleagues shielded and protected their students during hell on Earth. I hope with all of my might that no teacher ever again has to repeat their heroism.
However, every day, teachers save lives in less dramatic but equally powerful ways. Our kids’ educators create safe spaces that allow young people to use their minds well, and the complexity of that responsibility should not be underestimated. While managing the emotional, physical and psychological needs of two dozen or more children, teachers move through lessons, track and analyze data, solve an astoundingly complex array of challenges, efficiently and thoughtfully evaluate student work, and respond to constantly changing circumstances in their classrooms and buildings - not to mention negotiating relationships with colleagues and parents. They create, plan and seek new ways to help their students achieve. This work builds the foundation for health and success for our children in ways that protect them from harm and risk throughout their lives.
Teachers do all of this, and more, in an atmosphere of public opinion that barrages them with negative messages about their abilities and worth. Teachers in many school systems aren’t trusted to plan curriculum, the flow of their work days, the ways that they interact with students, or the course of their own professional learning. They’re told over and over that they work too little and are paid too much. They’re treated like often-malfunctioning cogs in a machine that’s supposed to produce bright, shiny, 21st century skill-equipped learners all ready to pop into the workforce.
I have heard calls for changes in our society following Newtown’s tragedy. Thoughtful people are working hard to find ways to reduce access to automatic weapons and to increase support for individuals with mental illness and their families who suffer with them. Others (who, in my view, are less thoughtful) have called for arming educators as a deterrent to future school shooting incidents. That these are often the same people who have decried teachers for being lazy and incompetent is an irony worth noting.
Let us hope that the notion that guns have a place in schools in any form will go away, and focus instead on what practical good we can do to honor the dead and grieving not only in Newtown but everyone everywhere who suffers from senseless violence. Let’s include teachers’ voices in policy debates about how to improve schools. Let’s finally stop underfunding schools so that we can invest in our best resources: our wonderful children and the adults who support their learning.