Although I have followed several decades of school shootings with a citizen’s concern, I have never as a high school teacher personally feared for my safety in my school building. The cliches feel as true for me now as ever: My school is a community, a place of love and trust and relationship-building.
To bring violence into any school is an unspeakable violation, one that teachers are accustomed to mourning from afar while believing or praying that our own communities are immune. And yet every mass shooting at a school is a reminder that any even temporarily aggrieved individual has the means, thanks to American gun policy, to carry out a senseless massacre.
In the aftermath of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, I have been forced to acknowledge the painful truth that my students do not view school the way I do. Having all come to consciousness after the first widely publicized school shooting at Columbine, many of them live in fear of being murdered at school.
Responding to this fear has been difficult for me as a teacher because the factors at play are larger than my school’s ability to educate and nurture; because my students’ fear causes me pain; because I don’t know whether to downplay their fear or stoke righteous indignation; because amid the daily, joyful hecticness of my job, I am now forced to mentally roleplay scenarios of extreme violence in which their safety and my own are on the line.
I am not alone in my confusion about my role as a teacher in this moment. It is being mirrored in a national conversation that has reached a new level of absurdity considering the question of whether teachers should be armed.
Everyone agrees that teachers are responsible for the well-being of their students. But the interpretation of that axiomatic truth often reflects deep confusion about teachers and their profession.
Who are teachers and what do they do? Teachers counsel their students because they know that a young person’s emotional struggles are as relevant to learning as well-planned instruction. Teachers are surrogate parents who sometimes provide for the basic material needs of their students. Teachers fiercely protect their students, sometimes at the cost of their own lives, as the heroes at Marjory Stoneman Douglas did. There is no such thing as being a teacher only of an academic subject and not of human beings.
Nevertheless, teachers are not therapists; they are not their students’ parents; they are not soldiers. Teachers, crucially, are not self-sacrificing martyrs. They are professionals with a specific and limited skill set who also have their own families and lives and hobbies.
The idea that teachers should double as armed guards is a particularly foolish delusion. Common sense and experience suggest that we would only cause more mayhem in an active shooter situation. The deterrent presence of armed teachers, even with concealed weapons, would do nothing to dispel my students’ fear that their school is a place of imminent violence. And yet the suggestion belongs to the same common misconception that teachers are unskilled babysitters presiding over an only vaguely necessary chunk of hours, or do-gooders who chose a job with low pay because they care for the community and can therefore be asked to take on whatever social need is trending.
Teachers need to spend time teaching, learning, collaborating with other teachers, and planning and revising lesson plans. Slowly and over time, real expertise, consisting of a thousand subtleties, is attainable for teachers who stay at it. Teachers want and expect to teach, nothing more and nothing less, and they want to do better at it.
Please don’t ask us to solve gun violence in America, or to kill or die on the job. We’re just teachers.
Kenan Jaffe is a teacher in the classics department at the Brooklyn Latin School.