The family of one of the young teachers from Sandy Hook said that she always called her students, “my kids”. Most teachers feel the same way. We know the teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary did because they stood in front of a bullet to shield their kids. Their principal and school psychologist ran TO the danger. Why would school personnel do this without thinking?
I always felt like my students were “my kids”. “My kids” were the students who belonged to me each school year. Before I had a child of my own I called them my kids. After Jennifer was born I still called them my kids. Because they belonged to me for an hour or two each day. They were still my kids in the lunchroom, the gym, on the bus, in the principal’s office. I knew them well – what could set them off, what might trigger a melt-down, what made them laugh. When they graduated from high school I was there with other 8th grade teachers, getting our pictures made with some of “our kids”. So proud of their accomplishments.
Every time there is a school shooting, we think about what we would do in the same situation. For the next month, every time there is a lock-down drill in school, teachers will think about Sandy Hook. It’s on our minds whether we watch every news report or read about it on the Internet. Teachers will look around their classrooms with fresh eyes, wondering which corner or space is the safest, checking to be sure there is paper to cover a window in the door.
Teachers of the youngest students probably feel more protective than middle school teachers, but I assure you that teachers of tough, angry, and even disrespectful 8th graders have an instinctive urge to protect their students. There is a legal term (Latin) for the way teachers stand – in loco parentis. We stand in the place of a parent. When the parent is not there, we make decisions and act for the parent. You won’t find that term in a teacher evaluation. It’s not in the standards or goals of the school. It’s likely not in a college course for teachers unless it is a course on school law. I can’t remember going to a workshop or training session on this concept. But when we review security procedures, discuss what to do in a lock-down, make plans for a school evacuation; teachers know what needs to be done. It’s a monumental task to direct 30 students in the middle of a lesson on verbs or gravity to follow safety procedures. Drills can dull students and teachers attitudes into bored routines. But with another incident we have to refresh our routines.
As I watched scenes of parents weaving through parked cars to get near the Sandy Hook Elementary School I thought of a similar event that took place at a middle school in Nashville on a spring day in 1994. Parents also waited outside the school, barred from entering by the police, waiting to hear why the school was locked down. Waiting, imagining the worst, needing to see their child. Finally children were released, and parents learned that a student was shot by another student. An accident, the gun was brought by a young man who felt defenseless and bullied; the gun examined by another who didn’t know it was loaded. The gun went off, and a third child died.
Years after the event, random weapon searches are conducted every year throughout Nashville schools. The story of why is forgotten by many, and never known by younger teachers. When my 8th graders grew restless and bored during a lockdown, I told them the story of the events in 1994. I told it to students who heard gun shots every night in their neighborhood. I told this to students who had never heard a gunshot or seen a gun. The reality of violence has to be told because we must have procedures and drills. How much should we say about school violence? Again, this is not in the books about teaching or in a teacher evaluation. Teachers use their common sense, their knowledge of “their” kids, their experience, what they know about the maturity and development of the age level they teach. We do what we think is best. Young children don’t need to hear the story from 1994, but middle school students do. It happened in a middle school.
Teachers at Sandy Hook are being called heroes by the media, by families. I hope you can see that teachers are heroes EVERY DAY. Every day presents new challenges – an angry parent, a student who loses control, a fight in the hall, students who come to school without the clothes they need for winter. Teachers who stand in for parents who can’t be there or won’t be there. Teachers make hundreds of decisions every hour, gauging the emotional climate of the room, seeing confusion on a few faces, deciding whether to continue a lesson or intervene in a conflict before it explodes.
Some of the signs around Sandy Hook say “Hug a teacher today.” If you are a teacher, I hope you are getting more hugs this week. If you are a parent of school age kids, let their teachers know how much you appreciate their work and sacrifices. One of the best gifts you can give most teachers is a gift certificate to teacher supply store or an office supply store. Why? Because we spend our own money to buy classroom supplies and materials.
Counting as joys
the Sandy Hook teachers and staff who protected their children last Friday
- give their free time to stay late and tutor or set up the classroom for the next day
- coach sports and after-school activities for little or no money
- spend their own money to help a child go on a field trip or buy needed supplies for a child
- take a child to school when his house burns and the bus doesn’t come by his temporary home
- give up their planning period to work through a conflict with two students
- are worn out by Christmas break from crazy schedules, parties, programs, and excited kids