School Climate & Safety Opinion

As Teachers, We Cannot Fix This Gun Mess. But Our Students Can, and We Can Help

By Jess Lifshitz — February 21, 2018 4 min read
Tyra Hemans, 19, left, and Logan Locke, 17, right, students who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, wait to board buses in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 20, that will take them to the state capitol in Tallahassee, where they plan to lobby legislators for stricter gun control laws.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

There was a time when a school shooting anywhere in America was enough to prompt emergency early morning staff meetings at schools around the country, with teachers planning how to deal with the fears and the questions they were sure to face.

But now.

Now another school shooting might barely get a mention as we pass each other in the hallway. Because now it is what we are used to. Even worse, it is what our students are used to. Our students’ fears and questions don’t just come up the morning after another school shooting. They are there every day. They are a part of life. Our students—our children—have come to accept this violence, this uncertainty, these feelings of being unsafe, as just part of what it means to be a kid in America.

This time. It was a Thursday morning when my 5th grade students walked into my classroom after the horrific events unfolded in Parkland, Fla. We started our day normally as I waited for them to show me what they needed. As they walked in, no one mentioned anything about the shooting. A few hours later, we were settling down for a writing lesson on using quotes, when one of my students raised his hand.

He told me that he had heard on the news about the shooting the day before. Did I know that 17 people were killed? And then hands started to raise. I let them talk. And soon they were filling the safe space of our classroom with the horrible details that they had heard. They were not crying. They were not cowering in fear. They were just telling me what they knew.

This helplessness comes only from knowing that there is nothing we can do to fix this right away."

I looked at them with tears in my eyes. And all I could tell them was that I did not want this to feel so normal. They had to know that this was not normal. This is not the way that things had to be.

Help Them Create a Better World

In that moment, it was not about trying to reassure my students that they were safe. Because they are not. In that moment, it was about helping them to see that this is not a reality that we have to accept. It is not a truth that we need to be OK with. In that moment, I needed to give them the space to fall apart, and then show them that they can push back and create better.

Because that is the privilege of being a teacher—knowing that we have the ability to help a generation do better.

We forget this sometimes. In fact, before my students entered my classroom that day, several coworkers came in, all with the same look of helplessness, all asking the same questions. “What do we do? How do we make this stop?” And on that day, I felt helpless, too. I knew that we could vote, I knew that we could contact our representatives in Congress, but we had already been doing all of that and the shootings just kept on happening.

But in the days since then, I have started to realize that this helplessness comes only from knowing that there is nothing we can do to fix this right away. Of course there isn’t. This culture of violence, this culture of guns—it has taken years to build. Just because we have been shocked out of our stupor for a moment does not mean that we can fix all of this in a moment. This is not the work of a moment. This is the work of a lifetime.

We can begin this work in small ways. We can build an awareness with our students that this level of violence and fear does not have to exist and does not exist elsewhere. We can create a community within our classrooms and schools that makes kids feel like they belong to something that is bigger than themselves, and that tells them they are worthy of going out into the world and demanding change. We can grow children who know a deep sense of empathy and value the safety of not only themselves, but all those they share this world with. We can listen to our students’ voices and show them their voices are valued and encourage them to raise them loudly. And we can show them how to do better than we adults have done before them.

Since the start of this school year, I have been giving my students the foundation for raising their voices. We have learned how to tell stories from our own lives that can help others better understand who we are, and we have shared those stories through our blogs and classroom Twitter account. We have learned how to responsibly research complex social issues that we are passionate about, to understand multiple perspectives, and to use our knowledge to demand change by writing letters to Congress, recording and sharing video messages, and posting petitions online. We have learned to view media and historical accounts and ask ourselves whose voices are being heard and whose voices are being left out, and then we’ve worked to seek out those missing narratives and share them with others.

And I suspect that the students in Parkland, Fla. and others across the country who have stepped up and spoken out these past few days have been engaged in similar kinds of learning. Because look at what they are doing. They are moving forward a movement that has been stalled too long. As adults, now it is our turn to lift them up and help them raise their voices. Because they are now doing what we wish we had been able to do.

So in these darkest of moments here in America, I take solace in knowing that I am a teacher. Because the privilege of being a teacher is the privilege of working with those who will one day fix this mess that we have made. We can help them do that. And that is what keeps me going.

Related Tags:


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
Mission Possible: Saving Time While Improving Student Outcomes
Learn how district leaders are maximizing instructional time and finding the best resources for student success through their MTSS framework.
Content provided by Panorama Education
Reading & Literacy K-12 Essentials Forum Writing and the Science of Reading
Join us for this free event as we highlight and discuss the intersection of reading and writing with Education Week reporters and expert guests.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Talking to Students About Tyre Nichols and Police Violence: Ideas From 3 Experts
Educators can't ignore the traumatic effects of such violent events on young people, especially their Black students, experts say.
5 min read
People gather to demand police reforms in the wake of the Tyre Nichols killing outside of the Memphis Police Department Ridgeway Station, Sunday Jan. 29, 2023, in Memphis, Tenn.
Protesters demand reforms outside a police station in Memphis last month, in the wake of Tyre Nichols' beating and death at the hands of five Memphis officers.
Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian via AP
School Climate & Safety Chaos, Disruption as More Schools Respond to Hoax 'Swatting' Reports
Faux reports of school shootings disrupted schools in at least three states this week.
5 min read
A police crime scene tape close-up
iStock/Getty Images Plus
School Climate & Safety Founder of Program for At-Risk Youth Says School Shooting Won’t Deter Him
The founder of the educational program in Des Moines was wounded in a shooting that killed two students.
2 min read
Will Keeps, president of Starts Right Here, pictured at his organization in Des Moines, Iowa, July 13, 2021. On Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, Keeps, founder of the Starts Right Here program for at-risk youth in Des Moines, said he will remain “all in on helping kids that are not reachable in so many peoples' eyes” after he was wounded in last month's shooting that killed two of his students.
Will Keeps, founder of the Starts Right Here program for at-risk youth in Des Moines, pictured at his organization in Des Moines, Iowa. Keeps said he will remain “all in on helping kids that are not reachable in so many peoples' eyes” after he was wounded in last month's shooting that killed two of his students.
Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Des Moines Register via AP
School Climate & Safety Letter to the Editor There Are No Quick Fixes to School Shootings
"Unless we get serious about community safety, there will be no school safety," says this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Education Week opinion letters submissions
Gwen Keraval for Education Week