The topic of school safety seemed to weigh heavily on the minds of the four 2018 Teacher of the Year finalists as they shared heartfelt stories, some through teary eyes.
Debates over arming teachers, gun laws, and school safety have reached a fever pitch in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead and 15 wounded on Feb. 14.
The four finalists visited Washington this week and sat down for media interviews Monday afternoon. The winner will be awarded later this spring.
Finalist Amy Andersen is an American Sign Language teacher at a public high school in Ocean City, N.J. Finalist Mandy Manning is an English and math teacher working with immigrant and refugee students in Spokane, Wash. Finalist Jonathan Juravich is an elementary art teacher at a public school in Powell, Ohio. And the fourth finalist, Kara Ball, is an elementary teacher for the Department of Defense Education Activity, which manages schools for military children.
Here is what each one had to say about guns, schools, and keeping their students healthy and safe. Parts of the interview were minimally edited and paraphrased for length and clarity.
What do you think of the idea of arming teachers to keep students safe, in response to the shootings in Parkland and elsewhere?
All four finalists vowed to never carry a gun in their own classrooms. Along with their answers, Andersen and Manning both shared how impressed they were with the survivors of the Parkland shooting and the way they were empowering one another to speak out in the midst of tragedy and resistance.
“It’s been very heartening to watch these students stand up and take the power they have to reach out and to send their message,” Manning said.
Andersen: “I will never carry a weapon into my room or have anything in my purse or my desk. We need to proactively put more resources into supporting children, instead of figuring out how we’re going to defend against tragedy. We’re not just going to accept that these tragedies are going to continue to happen ... and that we’re O.K. with living in a world like that. It’s not O.K. with me.”
Manning: “I absolutely never want to be armed in the classroom. I will never be an educator who carries a weapon, or conceals a weapon, or keeps a weapon in a safe, or puts it in my desk. I think that the idea of arming teachers is extremely reactive.” Instead, Manning said she said she wants to see a focus on prevention methods.
Juravich: Offering his response through tears and a voice breaking with emotion, Juravich said, “It is a very real part of my life now that I have to teach 1st graders how to build a barrier or kindergartners how to climb out windows without cutting themselves. I ... will never be a teacher that will be carrying a weapon of any kind into my classroom. I want to be my students’ hero for opening their eyes to the world. I don’t want it to be the type of world where I’m their hero for having to save their lives.”
Ball: “I will never bring a weapon into my classroom.” She echoed Andersen and Manning, saying, “Arming teachers is a reactive approach, when we really need prevention. My classroom is incredibly diverse. Schools across this nation are diverse. This issue is too complex to only have one solution.”
What would your personal #ArmMeWith hashtag say?
Andersen: Andersen said she wants to see more supports for students wrestling with mental health, behavioral, and emotional challenges—students she says are often marginalized. She said the wellness center at her school is an asset that empowers her students to seek help if they need it.
“There are so many things going on in our students’ lives,” Andersen said. “We have no idea what kind of difficulties they’re going through.”
Manning: “Arm me with the space, the time, and the freedom to make connections with my students, to engage with them and build relationships with them and help them feel empowered and seen and heard and help them to make connections with one another.”
Juravich: “My ‘arm me with’ would also be ‘arm my students with’ empathetic, compassionate relationships and ... connection to community. I hope that they will find—within our school, and within their neighborhoods and within their friendships—other people who they can look to for support, for care, and to have someone to talk to when they’re dealing with issues.”
Juravich also said he wanted to see resources focused on helping young children cope with the anxiety that lockdowns and school shootings may cause.
Ball: Ball said she wants to see conversations and strengthened relationships among schools, communities, families, and policymakers. She also wants to see added mental health resources for students. She emphasized the idea that the needs of students and schools vary greatly nationwide.
“I want to be armed with the resources to address the diverseness of my students,” Ball said.
Image, from left to right: Amy Andersen, Jonathan Juravich, Kara Ball, and Mandy Manning. Images provided by CCSSO.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.