I was a classroom teacher for 37 years. I still break down every time there is a school shooting; I cry about lost lives and potential: about families being broken and unable to heal: about the students' and community's loss of friends, staff members, family members, and innocence. I also cry for the shooter, who must have terrible pain to become angry enough to shoot teachers and classmates. Years ago at a drug and alcohol training class for teachers, we learned that "Depression is anger turned inward." If you look at the shooters in school shootings, all of them have anger and depression issues. Does the school have something to do with that anger? I have an opinion on that. Read on.
(Politicians are the first to shout "More gun control." even if they are not willing to address the 2nd amendment because of the risk of losing contributions from the NRA and votes of gun-loving constituents. I mention this only because I believe the gun issue is NOT the most important issue here.)
Teaching is all about relationships. Students learn best from a teacher whom students perceive as "liking" them. Kids spend more time in school classrooms than they do with their own parents and families, and in many cases, the good teachers - the ones who are in touch with their students - know more about a student's life and feelings than the parent knows. How do I know this to be true? I lived it for 37 years.
Schools must train teachers to be firm, fair, friendly, and trustworthy, yet, they must hold that delicate balance of making their students be accountable. Teachers must be approachable, understanding, and willing to listen, yet teachers can't cross the line and be "friends" with the students. The kids have friends; what they really need is a positive and caring adult and role model. (Students instinctively know which teachers are on their side, and they will try their hardest to please those kinds of teachers.)
Although sometimes it seems that students are not listening, teachers must realize that they are listening carefully - to every word you say. My advice to teachers is this: you must tell students that if a student knows that something bad is going to happen, they must tell a caring adult. I remember saying this statement on the first day of school (especially after Columbine), and many days thereafter, especially if a school threat was in the news. Through the years, lots of kids approached me, usually beginning with, "Mrs. Rittman, do you remember what you said the first day of school about telling a caring adult if something bad might happen? Can I tell you? I don't want to rat out my friend, so no one can know that I told you." (Keep in mind that a student must have a great deal of trust in a teacher to make such a statement, a fact that was not unnoticed by me .) I would thank the student for his trust, and assure the student that I would not mention his name. Situations like these usually entailed a short period of hemming and hawing on the part of the student, but with gentle persuasion, and words like, "You are doing the right thing, and no one will know that it was you," I was usually able to have the student reveal the information, which I could then take to the central administration. (For the record- I did protect the students' identities.) These kinds of exchanges happened to me and to many of the terrific colleagues in my school building because of mutual trust, and a solid student-teacher relationship. I was privileged to work in a great school with so many caring professionals and administrators.
You see, kids NEED to feel like they a a part of the school, with friends and opinions, with something important to offer, and with some notoriety of belonging. Being a small part of a large school culture and "fitting in" is paramount to the way a student views himself and the way he thinks he is viewed by others. Every child needs at least one activity or a sport, whether it be band or stage crew or Spanish Club. School is not just about learning subject matter, it is about learning about oneself, about getting along with others, about managing feelings of acceptance and rejection, about being a small (but important) cog in a big wheel, and helping to turn that wheel. School is also about learning to get along with others, and that includes learning about empathy. Every child needs to belong. I am sure you have noticed that the shooters are always outcasts, with no real stake in the school.
I think smaller class sizes could help teachers to identify students with social problems more easily, and perhaps to get students the help they need. Don't let any administrator or school board member tell you that class size really doesn't matter, because I have 37 years of experience that says IT DOES! For most of my career, I elected to teach students who were reluctant learners, many of whom who had mild to severe learning disabilities, and many of whom had been labeled their entire lives as "class problems." Although my Academic English classes had big numbers, my challenged learners were in small classes of just 12-16 students. I got to know the students in my smaller classes much better than those in my large classes, and because of the pure trust those kids had in each other and in me (no secrets in this kind of class!), problems were addressed immediately, important interventions happened, and kids were helped. Teaching is all about relationships, and no matter how good a teacher is, it is difficult to have more than a superficial relationship with 38 students in a classroom, all vying for the teacher's attention.
Good parent/teacher communication is essential to help students to be their best. The student learns the best and has the best chance for success when teachers, parents, and students all work together. Of course, parent communication takes time, and teachers are so busy with mundane clerical tasks, grading papers, and creating lessons, that parent communication goes by the wayside. Teachers need a class period every day, devoted to parent communication.
I think every school should provide professional development around the issues of our time: the two big ones, opioid addiction and mental health. When a group of teachers in my building worked through what was called CORE TEAM training (drug and alcohol training) some years ago, we became better listeners and observers at school and in the community. We learned to ask kids and parents tough questions in a caring way, to help them to express their needs, and to refer them to the resources that were available. We learned about interventions and addictions and school safety, and for many of us, including me, that training helped us in our personal lives.
There you have it - my opinions on how to stave off school shootings. Have caring teachers who not only get to know their students, but earn their students' trust. Have smaller class sizes so that every student feels important and involved in the school, and teachers can actually know their students. Help students to find their niche in the school culture, so that no one feels alone. Provide meaningful training and professional development to teachers, which they can apply in their classrooms. Communicate concerns and joys to parents, making each student feel that he is cared for and cared about. (Although teachers cannot control home environments, we can do the best we can while the kids are at school.) We need to go back to the school climate that is based on personal relationships, encouragement, inclusion, and accountability. We need to help every student learn about and feel empathy. I pray that through all of these things, school massacres cease.
Shooters who really want to get guns will steal them, although when it comes to gun control, I can't think of a single reason anyone would need a machine gun or an AK 47.
Of course, all of these thoughts are just my opinion.
I am reminded of this post from 1937 by Naomi John White, introduced to me by a college professor. Although educators no longer use the terms Miss White used in 1937, the original piece is below. We must do better for our children.
I TAUGHT THEM ALL
by Naomi John White
I have taught in a high school for 10 years, During that time I have given assignments, among others, to a murdered, an evangelist, a pugilist, a thief, and an imbecile.
The murderer was a quiet little boy who sat in the front seat and regarded me with pale blue eyes; the evangelist, easily the most popular boy in school, had the lead in the junior play; the pugilist lounged by the window and let loose at intervals a raucous laugh that startled even the geraniums; the thief was a gay hearted Lothario with a song on his lips; and the imbecile, a soft-eyed little animal seeking the shadows.
The murderer awaits death in the state penitentiary; the evangelist has lain a year now in the village churchyard; the pugilist lost an eye in a brawl in Hong Kong; the thief, by standing on tiptoe, can see the windows of my room from the county jail; and the once gentle-eyed little moron beats his head against a padded wall in the state asylum.
All of these pupils once sat in my room, sat and looked at me gravely across worn brown desks. I must have been a great help to those pupils - I taught them the rhyming scheme of the Elizabethan sonnet and how to diagram a complex sentence.
This piece first appeared in "The Educational Whirl" department in the November, 1937 edition of THE CLEARING HOUSE. Miss White taught English in Muskogee, OK, and later became a WAVES instructor at A & M College in Stillwater, OK
As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions.
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I LOVE writing. And I love writing children's books- my newest passion. Although it will be a ton of work, I am looking forward to selling my books. Since I was a secondary teacher, I know that I have much to learn about elementary students, and I will have to follow my own advice and be my genuine self. However, I also know that I am passionate about helping kids who have to wear glasses, and that GRADY GETS GLASSES sends a positive message. I am willing to work hard and do all the things that also made me a successful teacher for 37 years. I remain inspired!
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