Teaching Profession

For Teachers, Newtown Shootings Prompt Reflection, Outreach

By Liana Loewus — December 18, 2012 6 min read
Mourners grieve after paying respects at the wake for Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim Victoria Soto on Tuesday in Stratford, Conn. Ms. Soto, 27, was a teacher at the school who died during Friday's shooting after reportedly trying to shield her pupils from the gunman.
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Teachers do plenty of things for students that are not in their job descriptions. They bandage scraped knees, remember birthdays, give out their cell phone numbers, purchase classroom supplies, attend athletic events, and organize school festivals. But Victoria Soto, a 27-year-old 1st grade teacher in Newtown, Conn., went as far as a teacher could possibly go, putting her body between her students and a spray of bullets.

Soto was one of the 26 victims of the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Her picture and the accounts of her heroics—in which she reportedly hid students in closets before the shooter entered her classroom and shot her—have spread widely and become central components of the nation’s mental and emotional understanding of what happened that day in Newtown.

And Soto wasn’t the only educator at Sandy Hook to sacrifice her life for her students. Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, the principal, and Mary Sherlach, the school psychologist, ran into the hallway from a meeting upon hearing gunshots. Both were killed. Three other faculty members at the school were also gunned down as they tried to protect their students.

Sandy Hook Elementary School teacher Victoria Soto

For teachers, the events of Dec. 14—and the actions of the Sandy Hook educators—have had an especially strong impact. They have ushered in a pre-holiday period of professional reflection, bringing both deep grief and a strong sense of resolve.

Rebecca Mieliwocki, the 2012 National Teacher of the year, noted with awe that the adults in the building went toward the shooter, not away from him. “No one ran from that gun. That principal, those teachers, and those aids tried to stop this man,” she said. “We need to remember that the first responders were actually the teachers.”

While the violence was contained to one small town, the effects of it reached every teacher across the country. “Teachers spent a lot time this weekend trying to figure out how to cope with this,” said Larry Ferlazzo, an English and social studies teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif. In addition to deciding how to talk to their students about it, an event of school violence like this “requires all teachers to think about what they would do in a similar situation.” It’s an exercise in “soul searching,” he said.

Virtual Gatherings

Nearly every professional group involving educators, including the unions, parent-teacher associations, and mental health organizations, has released a statement about how teachers should address the shooting with their students.

But many efforts to convene teachers outside of Newtown who may want to discuss their own thoughts and fears related to the tragedy have been more organic. Much of the outreach among educators has taken place on social media networks, for example. Ferlazzo, an active Twitter user, estimates that over the last several days, “about 90 percent of tweets” by his teacher connections were related to the shooting—with teachers discussing the details of what happened, how the teachers responded, and what it might mean for schools and teachers going forward.

Anthony Mullen, who teaches at the ARCH School, an alternative public high school in Greenwich, Conn., said teachers have been using Facebook and email to pass around artistic images of the children who died.

Last night, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used Facebook to post a note to teachers, saying, “Thank you, educators, for facing your own fears today and helping students and parents cope with tragedy and return to learning.”

Teachers connected with the Center for Teaching Quality, a nonprofit advocacy organization, took to the organization’s online community space “to share concerns and generate solutions for specific scenarios they face this week,” said Braden Welborn, the group’s director of content and publishing.

On Saturday, the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut set up a website where people could offer their condolences for those in Newtown. By Monday, there were almost 5,000 messages from people around the world. “The outpouring of support is tremendous,” said Eric Excell-Bailey, communications director for the AFTCT.

Desire to Help

Most of all, teachers want to find ways to help, said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association. “We each deal with grief in a different way. [But] the overwhelming sense I have from the emails I’m getting [from NEA members] is that teachers want to do something to help. They want to help figure out ways to make schools safer.”

Mark Waxenberg, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, agreed that teachers have been selfless in their responses. “There is a general sense of community among the teacher ranks. When a tragic event happens like this, there is real mobilization of communities who want to help in any way possible—they want go to funerals, go to wakes, contribute, do anything they can do to help,” he said.

In Connecticut, the two union affiliates have worked closely together since the tragedy. “The support we’re seeing is so heartwarming,” said Excell-Bailey of the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut. “The minute it happened, I got a call from my counterpart at CEA, who said, ‘I heard about the shooting. If you need help with anything, let me know.’ At that point it wasn’t two different unions, it was, ‘We’re all in this together.’”

The Ohio Education Association, which dealt with a school shooting outside Cleveland in February that took the lives of three students, is already helping train educators in Connecticut to become grief counselors.

A school tragedy “knits teachers even closer together,” said Mieliwocki. “It reminds us all how unified we are in our mission of loving, supporting, and developing kids.”

Change in Public Perception?

The last few years have unarguably been tough ones for teachers, who’ve faced massive budget cuts, job insecurity, new accountability mandates, public derision, and declining morale. For some teachers, seeing how Soto and the other educators reacted in Newtown has given them a renewed sense of pride about their profession.

“I don’t know a teacher that wouldn’t give up their lives to save their kids,” said Mullen. “It says something to the core and character of who a teacher is.”

Rather than succumbing to fear and frustration, many teachers are finding inspiration in Newtown. “This is how we all believe we would react,” Ferlazzo said.

Ferlazzo added that a popular recent tweet by Jason Flom, director of learning platforms at QED Foundation, expressed a sentiment felt by many teachers: “Stories of teacher heroics in #Newtown should put to rest suggestions/accusations of teachers not putting students first.”

Flom was referring to the charge often heard in education policy debates that teachers—and particularly teachers’ unions—put their own professional interests ahead of what’s best for students.

Mieliwocki said that amid the testing and accountability debates, which have been “snarky” and full of “hostile rhetoric,” people have lost sight of the fact that they were talking about their children’s teachers, whom “the average American respects and loves.” The Newtown tragedy reminds the public “just how dedicated these people are to your kids,” she said.

“There’s been a lot of teacher bashing over the last couple of years—we’re not performing, we work short hours and days, we get paid too much,” said Mullen, who worked as a police inspector in New York City before becoming a teacher. “It’s unfortunate but sometimes it takes a tragedy like this to see what certain public servants are ready to do, ready to sacrifice. Prior to 9/11, there was a lot of criticism of the NYPD for a variety of issues. After 9/11, policemen and firemen were suddenly looked at as the heroes they were. I think something like that now could happen with teachers—they’ll be looked at how they really are. They are heroes. They are martyrs.”

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