Teaching While Afraid

In an era of school shootings, educators are carrying burdens bigger than they ever imagined.

A teacher holds up an anti-gun sign.
Cathy Kuhns, a teacher, stands on a street corner holding up anti-gun signs in Parkland, Fla., on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018. (Brynn Anderson / AP)

This is where things are today: The notion that teachers should be armed in order to protect students from shooters is a serious proposal now under debate. During Wednesday’s White House listening session with students, teachers, and parents affected by school shootings, President Trump suggested that allowing teachers with military training or other training experience to bring guns to school could help mitigate the effects of future attacks. School districts across the country, including in Georgia and Florida, are considering proposals to arm teachers, and legislation is being considered in several states. The idea was met with backlash from many educators, parents, and administrators. “I don't think teachers should be armed,” said Scott Israel, the sheriff in Broward County where the Florida shooting took place, at a CNN town hall. "I think teachers should teach.” How are teachers themselves coping with all of this?

Educators across the country field incidents of school violence day in and day out. The exact number of school shootings in the U.S. is a point of contention, but since 2014 there have been five school shootings on average per month, as well as countless other incidents of school violence of all sorts. For teachers, school violence imposes tough demands—not only that they may have to put their lives on the line should a shooting happen in their school, but the more quotidian reality of providing emotional support for children who are terrified of the prospect of such a thing occurring.

I reached out to fellow educators around the country to better understand how they think about their role as teachers in an era of school shootings. In these conversations, what I came to understand is that being a teacher today means working in a climate of intense fear—both their own and that of their students. Like me, many of my colleagues have experienced a violent act in their schools or know of an educator who has. To say the least, it’s not what they thought they were signing up for. “When going through college to become a teacher, even after the Heath High School shooting in Paducah, it never crossed my mind that I would need or ever receive active-shooter training,” said a Kentucky teacher, Staci Clark Hughes. “I never thought I would have to worry about turning a broom handle into a weapon of defense or how to lock my classroom door within seconds. I never thought I would need to know what a discharged weapon sounded like in a school hallway.… We did not go to college for this.”

Schools are trying to bring teachers up to speed with active-shooter trainings and drills—protocols that can simultaneously assuage and exacerbate fears. Many teachers told me that the school-violence training they had received was disorganized and insufficient. Some shared that they had been encouraged to stock their rooms with canned goods to throw at potential attackers should they enter the classroom, or to search their rooms for potential barricades to block the door should an active shooter enter the building. One teacher, Ryan Kaiser, the 2016 Maryland Teacher of the Year, told me he considered bringing in a bucket of rocks, just in case, but still felt helpless because his doors didn’t automatically lock. And because his door opened outward, he would be unable to barricade the door.

Even so, the teachers I spoke with generally felt that active-shooter training had improved since Columbine, a time period during which 32 states have passed laws requiring schools to conduct lockdown drills. By 2015 nearly 95 percent of schools were conducting drills, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Many teachers discussed the plans they’ve made on their own and with students, independent of school instruction. Some teachers spend time searching their classrooms for potential protective weapons, places to hide, and escape routes. An art teacher told me she had a pile of box cutters in her storage closet that she told her students was there just in case. Many teachers regularly check and double-check the locks on their classroom doors and storage closets, to ensure they can hide in these rooms if needed. A couple of teachers noted considering their placement in the building—whether they were close to the front door, near a potential escape exit, or close to communal areas. Tiffany Hursh Gruen, a Kentucky teacher, told me that the silence in her school building when class is in session is striking to her now, post-Columbine—doors are locked and learning takes place in closed spaces. “There was a time in my career when we encouraged teachers to keep their doors open, let the learning spill out, fill the halls with the sounds of excited exploration,” she said. “Now, it’s silence.”

Teachers also reported that students tended to make their own safety plans as well. One teacher told me that a student told him she had even searched online for a bullet-proof vest, but was discouraged when she discovered that the least expensive one she could find was $500. Another Kentucky teacher, Tanya Boyle, told me, “Several students told me this week that if a shooter was in the building, they would want to be with me.” She continued, “This seemed odd, considering that I would struggle to help them because my mobility is so poor. They then told me that they wanted to be with me because I have a big closet that is perfect for hiding.” Christine Porter Marsh, the 2016 Arizona Teacher of the Year, shared with me that her classroom had a wall of windows, and students in her classroom latched on to this detail after last week’s attack in Parkland, Florida. Marsh said the rule had always been to lock the doors and keep them locked at all times because no active shooter had ever entered a locked door before, but Nikolas Cruz shot through windows, rendering their old code of safety useless.

The concerns on teachers’ minds go well beyond the specific physical risk of school shootings. Many teachers are thinking about the need for social and emotional learning and mental-health supports in schools; the need for more kindness, empathy, and dialogue within classrooms and outside them; and how family dynamics affect young people. They’re frustrated with standardized testing and its impact on the time and energy teachers could be putting into addressing these other student needs, and with the lack of training of all kinds—active-shooter training, but also mental-health training—for the country’s teachers. They’re concerned about the lack of time, follow-through, and communication on the part of counselors and other school personnel when violent incidents do occur.

Some teachers wondered about their ability to protect students, and—heartbreakingly—some wondered if they have students in their classes from whom they and the rest of their students might have to be protected. Many teachers were skeptical of the idea of arming teachers, the solution that’s most quickly making headlines and even reaching legislative chambers in states such as Maryland and Kentucky. Instead, many conversations amongst teachers on social media focused on what teachers saw as longer-term solutions, such as finding ways to increase mental-health support and for more expansive safety training in schools. Some teachers recommended more metal detectors or trained armed guards, rather than armed teachers. Teachers also seemed concerned about the question of which teachers should be armed and which should not—who would decide? And if teachers are focused on the gun in their room that they might someday have to use, will they lose track of their main purpose—teaching? Many already feel overwhelmed with the emotional burden they are being asked to carry; adding a weapon to this load feels unthinkable to some. But there are those teachers who said they would protect their students no matter what, and some argue that carrying a weapon would enable them to better do this.

The new reality of choosing to become a teacher is that one can die while teaching children. This is not a reality that most teachers think about when they walk into their first classrooms—or their thirtieth. Some teachers are worried about what they actually would be willing to do. Many have contemplated whether they would take a bullet for their students, as the Parkland assistant football coach Aaron Feis reportedly did. But most of the teachers I spoke with believe that they signed up for teaching because they want to help kids—and they view saving students’ lives as part of that job. “As a kindergarten teacher I would have no hesitation to lay my life down for one of my students,” said Patrice McCrary, a well-known Kentucky teacher. “My family struggles knowing that statement is true. … I am an inducted member of the National Teacher Hall of Fame. Not far from the hall of fame is a Fallen Educators monument. Seeing the list of names on the monument is heart wrenching.” She added that “most sobering of all is the fact there are empty spaces left for future additions. As of this week, three more names will be added.”