We Can’t “Just Wait”

My favorite time of the week is Friday around 2:50 PM. It’s the moment that my daughter comes running out of her school. She comes out of school like that almost every day, but Fridays are different. There’s no homework to do for the next night. It’s Friday Night Pizza and Ice Cream. It’s the culmination of a long week and the idea that “our time” is just beginning.  Like a lot of the kids coming out of her elementary school running to their parents, she does a quick, almost excited jog to me, a little skip in front of me, and then allows me to give her a big hug.

I know that time is working against me on this. There aren’t all that many more years of picking her up from school and the joyful, carefree jog will be one of those things relegated to my memories.

After the usual conversation about how the day was, what type of YouTube video she wants to make, and the new fact she learned about the Revolutionary War, she asked a question that I was hoping I would never hear. I knew it was inevitable, but I was hoping that it wouldn’t happen when she was nine. And, I was really hoping that this wouldn’t be an issue anymore.

“Dad, is your school and my school protected?”

She heard about Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. There’s been others in her lifetime, but, now, she’s finally old enough to understand. She’s finally old enough to feel that fear.

“Yes, honey. Both of our schools are protected. The doors are locked and guarded. And, we have a plan in case somebody tries to get in.”

“Yeah, we practiced that again today.”

“What do you mean? You guys do emergency drills?”

“Yes, we have to get into this small corner, turn the lights out, and not make a sound. The door is locked and we just wait.”

After some reassurances from me that everything would be alright and that her school is safe, the conversation went back to the normal routine. But, I am not going to lie. I hugged my daughter a little longer that night.

Since Friday afternoon, I’ve been perseverating on the last three words of the safety conversation: “we just wait.”

It’s because of those three words–we just wait–that we are here. Our government, our voters, and us, the teachers, have done nothing but wait. The consequence of our actions was felt yet again, this time by 17 people.

Last Wednesday was yet another dark day for our world. Parkland was the latest. And, sadly, it won’t be the last. 17 lives were lost because of yet another school shooting. We talk a lot about putting kids first and keeping them safe, yet “safe” doesn’t quite feel like the right word. Use that word to the families of the 17 lost. Tell that to the families of those killed at Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and Columbine. And, there are others–so many others–but the Federal Government, evidently, hasn’t clarified how it defines school and mass shootings. That doesn’t really matter because any number above zero lives lost is too many. We must do better.

This naturally devolves into a political battle of insults. It’s the NRA people and those politicians they fund against everyone else. Insults fly. Talk goes in circles. And, more people continue to die. But, this will be an attempt to go beyond politics. It’s easy to lay blame at the hands of the politicians and the NRA. And, yes, they get a great share of the blame. But, looking at this issue and these tragedies through that lens doesn’t give the entire picture. It negates the fact that the education system has failed as well. It negates the fact that “we just wait.”

We–society, government, and the education system–have broken the most fundamental promise to all of those who lost their lives in school. We continue to break this promise to the kids we welcome into our schools everyday. We say that school is a safe place. Until we do something about gun violence in the United States, that is a lie and will continue to be a lie.

I can still remember when the news of Columbine broke. 19 years ago–I was in my second year of teaching. We huddled around the TV in the teachers’ lounge in disbelief. It felt so foreign and so far away. It felt out of the ordinary. It wasn’t what happened in schools. Although there had been shootings in schools, even just the year before, this type of massacre felt different. I remember talking to my eighth graders the next day; there was a lot of fear. The main theme that kept coming up was: How could this happen? Could this happen again? Could it happen here? No, it was just one random event by some troubled teens. So, we just waited.

19 years later and Columbine is no longer one of the top 10 deadliest shootings in United States’ history.

And, now, after essentially doing nothing to help fix this problem, tragic news like Parkland is becoming normal. School shootings are not decreasing. Things are not getting better. Running simulation drills is not addressing the problem. Just as the Federal Government has yielded to the NRA and has done nothing to address this issue, the education system has been complicit as well. It’s well past time for action.

We should be leading the way. The National Education Association is the largest Union in the United States. The American Federation of Teachers Union is the sixth largest. That should make this industry a powerful force in the political scene. It should allow us to fight not only for the education of our kids, our working conditions, and fair funding,  but it should ensure that we have a strong enough voice to keep our children safe. Yet, there is no action. There is no political pressure. Until Teachers decide to fight for safe schools and better care for students, there will only be “thoughts and prayers”.

We are not powerless. We are simply negligent.

We are negligent for not protesting for gun control laws. While the politics of this issue are deep and the money is even deeper, the education system can be a voice for gun control that will still allow for Second Amendment Rights. Nobody is asking for the second amendment to be repealed. Nobody is asking that people lose rights as citizens. We are just asking that there be some sort of stringent process in place.  We can lobby for laws similar to those in Japan, which have yielded low death rates due to gun violence.

Just as we work tirelessly to reform outdated practices in our industry, it is time to work tirelessly to reform outdated practices that impact the safety and well being of the students we swore to protect. The Teachers’ Unions must make this a priority. We are not powerless. We must be a voice for change. We must take action like we teach our kids to do every day. It’s never been more important than now. We must protest as a group. We must lobby as a group. And, most importantly, we must vote as a group. We must take advantage of our numbers.

But, to be fair, we are also negligent on the other side of the argument as well. While the current Administration may point fingers at the FBI’s negligence rather than deal with the real issue, NRA supporters do have valid points in regards to mental health. No, it’s not the weak argument about guns not killing people. That’s just absurd. But, in making their Orwellian argument, they actually do make a valid point about mental health issues.

There does need to be better support for people with mental health issues. The ease in which one can obtain a gun is certainly one issue, but reforming how we, as a culture, deal with mental health issues is just as important.

The education system is partly to blame for that. While the system does have some good practices in place and there are more services for mental health than ever before, there are still far too many gaps. Kids fall through the cracks too often. “Problem” kids are suspended, many times, without the true root of the problem being addressed. Far too many kids roam the halls of our schools, victims of bullying. No assembly or anti-bullying initiative has ever been more than lip service to the problem. Far too many kids are still brushed off by the system under the guise of “it’s part of growing up.” Like the gun control efforts, “we just wait”.

The education industry has an obligation to do better, even in the era of budget cuts. Every student must be treated as if he/she matters. We talk about the idea of having genuine relationships with kids, but that belief has to be there for all kids, not just the ones who are “reachable”. One-size-fits-all assembly programs don’t work, just like one-size-fits-all teaching doesn’t work. Differentiation is the key to classroom instruction. It is the same with helping students deal with issues.

The guy in the big chair may like flipping the script and deflect to the FBI, but we cannot. We must face the issue of mental health. We must invest in it. Districts must fund mental health programs so that when kids need help, we provide it for them. All the gun reform and gun laws in the world won’t take away the fact that there are kids who are not getting the services our system is supposed to provide.

Educators have stood by long enough. The time is now to act. The naysayers can call us “liberal teachers” and say that we aren’t a voice in gun safety and mental health. But, we are a voice. We have the numbers. We have the resources. And, we can take a stand instead of just shaking our heads as yet another incident happens. But, even if we decide to finally take action, we are no longer going to be the leader of the fight.

Like most things, students are the first ones to see things for what they are and to act. The students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have sparked Nationwide protest over gun violence. They vow to be the last victims. Since then, there have been numerous protests, including a group who had 17 students lay on the ground in front of the White House to symbolize the 17 lives lost at Stoneman Douglas. There are more protests in the works. Students are speaking out more and more. And despite “adults” insulting them with vile Tweets and television editorials, they keep coming back. Surely, the pro-gun side is hoping that “these kids” will simply forget and move on. They’ll bank that a teenager will lose focus on this issue. This generation won’t. They won’t stop. They won’t “just wait”.

And, for those blaming us “liberal teachers” for students behaving this way…thank you, but you are giving us far too much credit. We’ve been given a charge to educate kids to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, and to forge their own path into a rapidly changing world. With kids like Emma Gonzalez and the countless others taking a stand, they are doing more than that. They are taking a lead on a problem that we let fester. They are standing up to administration that many are cowering to in the name of a dollar, fear, and some false power. They will fight for the change. They will win.

But, that fight will cross over into the education world. There will be student protest. There will be sit ins and walkouts. How we react, as an industry, will be interesting. Of course, there is a balance of allowing kids to express themselves and still providing an education. But, we’ve put them in this situation. We did nothing to help this issue. If we’ve done our job right in the classroom, we’ve helped develop a generation that will challenge the status quo. We’ve told them to question the world and that they should take action. We didn’t solve this problem for them. We should support them as try to solve it for us. I know of at least one who will.

This generation gets a bad reputation about being indifferent and being self indulgent. They are called lazy. Yet, they are the only group currently taking action. They are the only group strong enough to stand against the vile words of the opposition. They are standing up now so future generations can go to school, feel safe, get a great education, and come running out of the school on a Friday full of joy.

Shame on us, the educators, for not leading the way.