I have been in education for almost two decades, much of it working to prepare student teachers to lead classrooms of their own. In the hours since the Uvalde, Texas, massacre that killed 19 children and two of their teachers on Tuesday, I no longer know what this work entails.
I began teaching in 2005, not long after two students shot and killed 12 schoolmates and a teacher at Columbine High School. Since Columbine, there have been 14 mass shootings at U.S. schools that have killed at least 169 people and wounded dozens of others. Anyone teaching since 1999 has taught through these mass shootings and wondered why nothing is done to stop them. Returning to school—any school—in the wake of a shooting and attempting to cover the foundations of lesson planning, grading, and student engagement is a farce — it feels like a terrible joke — for both the teachers and the students— to be expected to move on with our work amidst so much preventable suffering. It is cruel that there is more political and legal energy invested in legislating gender identity and the books children have access to than there is in protecting their lives.
The most dramatic shift in my work occurred in the days after Florida’s Parkland high school shooting in February of 2018. On that day, I arrived at my college class in Wisconsin a shell of a person. My students were noticeably reserved–far quieter and less excited than when we had met just a few weeks before. I wondered whether they were reconsidering their decision to pursue careers in education. The air was thick with fear and hopelessness. That semester had only just begun, and I had to somehow convince my students —and myself— that our time together spent on teaching methods and typical classroom issues was a worthwhile endeavor in the face of lawmakers’ abject refusal to enact reasonable gun-control legislation.
One of my students, a college junior named Rachel, had said at the time that she felt trepidation about her choice of career because, “there is no teacher preparation on saving lives.”
She’s right to notice the folly. We are ill-equipped to prepare our students for the possibility of a gunman entering their school. There is no way for me to approach my students with a book, worksheet, video, or lesson and say “this is the thing that will prevent your death in a K-12 classroom” because these materials do not exist. With each passing school tragedy, it becomes harder to convince a new cohort of aspiring teachers that teaching is a worthwhile, sustainable and viable career.
These student teachers know what I know: No person, program, school or community can ensure their safety in the classroom. To become a teacher in the U.S. is to make the conscious decision to risk their lives. Rachel is a fifth-grade teacher now. I often wonder how she and her students are managing.
Our politicians have put teachers and students in an impossible position. We are now tasked with doing the work that our elected officials refuse to do. In our own way, we are organizing and attempting to address the gaps in our knowledge about how to at least navigate these events as they occur. Michigan State University researcher Alyssa Hadley Dunn started the Facebook group Teaching On Days After, based on her research on teaching in the wake of national tragedies and injustice. The group was created two years ago and there are now nearly 20,000 members. It grows by hundreds of members weekly.
Teachers at all levels are in a predictable frenzy, cobbling together resources to help students process preventable tragedy, loss, and grief. We’re also burdened with entering these educational spaces and hoping we—and our students, and their students—don’t die.
In the meantime, individual schools are forced to do the best they can to avoid tragedy. Most schools have lockdown procedures, which is a bit like placing a Band-Aid over a severed artery. I vividly remember those active-shooter drills and having to crouch alongside a wall with 25 giggling middle schoolers. A colleague of mine refers to these measures as murder theater. As she pointed out in the hours after the latest school shooting, “training children and teachers to rehearse for their own murders hasn’t prevented their murders.” Murder theater appears to be the most lawmakers are willing to do to address the gun crisis facing our nation’s teachers and students. School shooting after school shooting shows this is not enough.
I will never know how to prepare my student teachers for when a gunman enters their classroom. I shouldn’t have to learn.
Christina Wyman is a teacher and writer living in Lansing, Michigan.