Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

‘Small Actions Matter': A Teacher Reflects on School Shootings Since Sandy Hook

One teacher recalls the emotion of teaching 25 miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School on the day of shooting
By Laura Milligan — April 14, 2023 4 min read
An illustration of a woman walking a circular path.
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December 14, 2012

I teach middle school English at a small school in Connecticut. I’ve recently had my second child. My morning begins just like it does every other day: Wake early, often in the dark. Immediately feed both my 3-month-old and my 13-month-old. Guzzle coffee. Get myself and everyone dressed. Drop off my babies at day care. Jump on I-95. Drive 30 minutes to my school. Teach my 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students how to craft topic sentences, where themes of injustice show up in To Kill a Mockingbird, and why knowing the parts of speech is actually important.

When my second-period class ends, I have about five minutes until the next group of 6th graders stumble in, find their seats, pull out their notebooks, and look up at me, waiting to begin.

Since the first day of school, I’ve suggested this regiment. “Scholars arrive ready to learn!” I say in my sing-songy teacher voice. Then, unfailingly, as the students unpack and prepare for class, at least one asks, “What are we doing today, Mrs. Milligan?”

Of course, like many teachers, I’m not always sure. I don’t always have a perfect plan for our 45-minute class period, but the importance of this back and forth, this tiny but consistent exchange, is not lost on me.

I take a breath. It’s review week, the time dedicated to preparing for the end-of-term assessments that require students to recall and reflect on their learning from the previous few weeks. But all anyone can think about is the upcoming holiday vacation. It’s a funny time in schools—everyone bustling with excitement for a break but simultaneously bristling with anxiety about tests, exams, or projects.

Before my next class stumbles in, I quickly check my phone. Shocked, I stay at my desk, glancing from my phone to the always-earnest and sometimes-awkward middle schoolers walking in and waving. “Hi, Mrs. Milligan. What are we doing today?”

I stand, unsure whether to address the news, wondering if they know, debating how to begin. A moment passes. My division head, the director of the middle school, is at my classroom door. “Hey, Laura, do you have a minute?” Another breath.

I feel both shaken and supported by our exchange. We are in the hallway now, a “secret” spot teachers meet sometimes for whispered conversations. “Are you OK?” Our eyes meet. Behind his goofy, director-of-the-middle-school glasses, I see his humanity.

Time stops, a slow pause, and in this freeze, our identities as colleagues and educators fade, and we see each other as two people sharing the same fear. The moment highlights a small but significant crack in the haze of the remaining day.

He encourages me to continue with review day. He tells me that the police are sending officers to our school because we are roughly 25 miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman just shot his way through the entrance of the building. He tells me that we will be safe, that we will get our students through the day and home to their families. He tells me that tomorrow we will have an all-school meeting to address the events that unfolded only miles from our school.

I am back in the classroom, now at the whiteboard. My students stare at me. I feel a buzzing, a tingle, an awareness. I know that students watch what we do more than what we say, and so my continuing to teach matters.

“Scholars arrive ready to learn!” My sing-songy teacher’s voice. My soft smile. Their light laughter at my silly saying. Small actions make a difference.

After class, I look again at my phone. My husband texts. “I picked up the kids.” Our children. My babies.

I’m on pickup duty. I’m one of the last teachers to leave campus. For the first time in my life as an educator, police officers post-up at both the entrance and the exit of the pickup loop. The sight, coupled with the cold, dry December air sends shivers through me. The traffic, the officers, the parents rushing from their cars to their children is frenetic, and, yet, we are supposed to feel safe?

I want to be home, but I wait with the last student, somewhere in a new space between law enforcement and school community.

When the last student hugs his mom, my job is done. I jump back on the highway, drive the 30 minutes home, and finally get to hug my own children.

2018-2022

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Parkland, Fla.
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Santa Fe, Texas
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Santa Clarita, Calif.
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Antioch, Calif.
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Oxford, Mich.
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Uvalde, Texas
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June 4, 2022

Ten years later.

Tomorrow, my family will participate in a Moms Demand Action event. My children, now almost middle schoolers, will walk with me to support gun laws and gun safety. Together, we will stand electrified with that same awareness that what we do matters more than what we say.

March 28, 2023

In Nashville, Tenn., at The Covenant School, six people were killed, including three children. According to Education Week, there have been 158 school shootings in which at least one person was killed or injured since 2018.

Our continuing matters. Small actions matter. Call your senators and your representatives. Mail postcards to Washington. March. Every day that we wait to take action, another school and another family is broken.

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