Most schools have not had shootings, but all schools have had students with struggles. These struggles range from family crises to student stress to mental illness to harassment and bullying. As a teacher, I know that part of my job is to be available and supportive to students who need to talk about their difficulties.
That’s why I make sure my classroom is a safe and inviting place for students. My walls are covered with inspiring artwork, I welcome everyone who walks into the room, and I make sure my room is used for school clubs and activities, so there is always a bit of a buzz in the area as students come in and out to check in with me about after-school events.
Over the years, it has never occurred to me that my room would be safer for students were I carrying a weapon. In fact, I am certain that the presence of a gun in my room would have deterred some students from stopping by to talk. A gun would not have added to the kind of emotional and physical security that these students sought. They wanted to learn from me, teach me something, talk with me, and enjoy the learning environment that we’d created together. They needed a smile, a song played in between classes, and photos on the wall depicting Malala Yousafzai, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Kermit the Frog. Not guns.
There are some students and adults who argue that arming teachers would help bolster school safety, but these arguments fall short on many levels. For one, they lack clarity on where the guns would be stored, and how they would be accessible in moments of crisis. In addition, they fail to address our nation’s deep struggles with racial profiling, and how that might affect students and teachers of color. And they also don’t address how guns would make a classroom more inviting for that student who is struggling and needs to talk.
Like many teachers, I have visualized what my actions would be should an active shooter enter my school. My thoughts have always been that I would do everything in my power to keep my students physically and emotionally safe. I’ve treated every lockdown drill seriously, and have taken the time for mental preparation. I’ve established in my mind that I would take a bullet to protect any student in my care.
But holding a gun in my classroom would be different: It would require a major shift in my own demeanor, moving me from nurturance to enforcement. This shift would turn some kids away, and it would alter my own approach to the job. I can’t see a benefit in that. In fact, it seems to undercut the purpose of an educator, as part of the teacher’s job is to help students envision a more just and peaceful world. Our job is to help them see a way to make things better; adding guns to the classroom seems more like surrendering to the darker side of human nature. Teachers don’t specialize in despair; we prefer to work with hope.
On Friday, about an hour after school had ended, a student of mine stepped in the room to talk. A family crisis had made it impossible for her to complete a story assignment for me, and her red eyes and tears revealed how upset she was about it. We talked it over, I listened and I did my best to offer words of support. There was no easy solution, and we’ll talk again tomorrow. But in that moment, she needed to hear from someone that it would be OK. I did my best to provide that.
Nothing about this conversation would have been enhanced by the presence of a gun. As we consider measures to improve school security, let’s remember the true purpose of the teacher – as a source of instruction, guidance and encouragement. Teachers offer safety, but it’s not the kind of safety a weapon provides. It’s the kind that comes from the heart and mind. The kind we can’t live without.
If we change our societal view of what we want from a teacher, we will have to live with the consequences. Because once you change it, there’s no going back.