Teachers Are Not Soldiers

A marine-turned-teacher argues that it's impossible to prepare educators to effectively use a gun in a crisis.

A person shoots a gun at a target.
A teachers-only firearms training class at the Veritas Training Academy in Sarasota, Florida on January 11, 2013  (Brian Blanco / Reuters )

In response to the Parkland school shooting last month, a handful of Florida legislators recently approved two bills that would set aside tens of millions of dollars to train teachers to carry firearms. The legislation echoes calls from President Trump and others for schools to arm teachers as a solution to prevent more campus massacres from happening. “We have to let the bad guy know that they are hardened,” Trump said at a White House meeting last week, suggesting that schools give bonuses to teachers who carry guns.

But these efforts to create warriors out of teachers as a means of addressing school shootings are wrongheaded. I used to be in the Marines, and now I'm a classroom teacher. From these experiences, there is one thing I know to be true: Responding effectively to an active-shooter situation is one of the toughest challenges for a marksman out there. To train teachers for this role would be an enormous task—and policymakers who think otherwise aren’t being realistic.

By the time I completed boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island—and stood ready to pin the Marine Corps Eagle, Globe, and Anchor to my lapel—I came to realize: There’s no such thing as a Rambo. Teamwork was the essence of mission success in the Marine Corps. We were trained from the very beginning to understand that each unit we were in was only as strong as our weakest link. If one recruit failed at a task, we were collectively punished with a brutal circuit of push-ups, jumping jacks, and burpees, incentivizing us to figure out how to work together more efficiently and to hold each other accountable. These games in boot camp were always miserable, but in retrospect, I realize that they formed in us a group mindset that allowed us to react to events instinctively, to operate under stress, and to ultimately function as a well-formed team.

Today, I’m a classroom teacher, which is not only a challenging job, but an isolating one as well. The classroom is what defines the school day—teachers do not work regularly with other teachers, but rather spend our days working with students behind the classroom door. Every day that I come to school I work with students in a solo capacity. The type of teamwork that defined mission success in the Marines is not required by school administration for a teacher to perform the necessary functions of the job, but will be required and necessary if teachers are instructed to take armed action against an active shooter. As a former Marine and current teacher, I know that building within teachers (including military-veteran teachers) the required teamwork to be effective in a Parkland-type situation is an unreachable goal.

Beyond that collective mindset, the Marine Corps has always emphasized marksmanship. Every Marine is a rifleman first, regardless of his or her specialty. Before recruits set foot on a rifle range for live-fire exercises, proper weapons-handling skills and the fundamentals of marksmanship are drilled into them—and these 13 weeks of training represent a minimum level of proficiency needed to simply be functional in a combat environment. The ability to enter a building and effectively clear rooms—a skill needed to stop an active-shooter situation—requires an added layer of training and specialization. Thus, having military training alone does not guarantee a person to be  effective in an active-shooting situation; efficacy stems from the advanced training that particular units receive, such as that which infantry battalions and special-operations forces undergo.

These units train hard to ensure they’re effective in close-quarter battle, learning to fire weapons effectively under repeated stress. They fire thousands of rounds of ammunition in myriad environments during these courses. The purpose is clear: Through repetition and the introduction of stressors, muscle memory is developed; in an actual combat scenario, reaction is almost instinctual. The training required for effective operational response to a hostage situation, for example, requires a high level of training that builds an almost telepathic level of communication, teamwork, and split-second reaction.

Over the course of my time in the Marines, I trained on various heavy machine guns for the purpose of convoy operations, and consider myself to be proficient with a firearm. But none of the skills I learned would truly transfer into an active-shooter situation. Furthermore, as a teacher, I know that most of my day is spent alone in a classroom with my students. Efficient communication—the type forged in the military and necessary for neutralizing an active shooter—cannot occur when teachers spend the day cut off from other teachers in separate rooms.

Though some Florida legislators believe training teachers to use firearms is an appropriate policy response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas tragedy, it is unrealistic to expect teachers to react effectively to a threat, even if those teachers have training. There is a difference between firearms training—which develops proficiency in marksmanship and attached safety protocols—and the ability to engage a threat while under fire; at a shooting range, targets do not fire back. Nobody knows how he or she will react when rounds are flying in their direction, and the confusion that law-enforcement officers may experience when encountering armed teachers at school during an active-shooter situation could be devastating. The danger of students being hit by stray bullets during the crossfire that may result from teachers engaging a shooter is also a very real possibility. Furthermore, a working paper by Sheldon Greenberg, a professor of management in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, illustrates that arming teachers will present an increased risk in schools, rather than mitigate the risks posed by an active-shooter situation. The paper notes evidence that police officers, who are trained specifically for violent encounters, often fail to fire their weapons accurately in a sudden crisis situation.

If nothing else, there are the practical considerations. When are teachers to train with firearms? Every teacher I know (including myself) struggle at points to keep their workloads manageable. Lesson planning, grading papers, coaching, helping students put together résumés, work on SAT prep, and then a weekend at the pistol range?

Had I wanted to continue carrying a firearm at work, I would’ve stayed in the service or chosen a different profession after my enlistment. Having worked with high-school students for several years now, I understand that my ability to be effective as a teacher is predicated on the existence of an environment conducive to learning and trust building. This environment will not exist in a schoolhouse where teachers double as armed guards.