First Person

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

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.
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.
—Gerald Herbert/AP
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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.

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