OPINION

American Schoolteachers Are Heroes. They Shouldn't Have To Be.

A shared embrace during the candlelight vigil for victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Par
A shared embrace during the candlelight vigil for victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

It was Valentine’s Day. Balloons, roses and pastel-colored bags adorned the hallways, which were full of middle-schoolers running to their hopeful faves and BFFs. In my classroom, because it was a special day, I let students eat the assorted chocolates and lollipops they’d stashed in their bags. In an eighth-grade lesson on the slope-intercept form of an equation, which would conclude the unit we were learning, the students got off-task and began gossiping, as they are wont to do.

Normally, they chat about fellow students, teachers, and the NBA. This time, at around 11:30 a.m., one of my more unfocused students peered directly in my eyes and asked, “Yo, can you imagine if there was a school shooting here? That would be wild.”

It was hours before the news of the most recent school massacre broke. I looked right back at him and said, “I’d do everything in my power to protect you.” He might have expected me to shrug his question off, but I didn’t. His life matters. He looked back and said, “Oh ... OK.”

I wrestle constantly with the popular vision of teachers as heroes in moments of tragedy. In my 13-year teaching career, I’ve accumulated a list of actions that could be perceived as heroic. I’ve broken up fights, stayed long hours after school and during breaks, consoled parents who’ve shared personal stories of resilience, cried with students through any number of tragedies big and small and bought supplies for the classroom out of my own pocket.

I don’t think I’m special. In fact, I think I’m the norm. Like my colleagues and friends, I do what it takes to reach the children I serve. Educators like us make daily sacrifices to do our jobs, because we love the work and we care deeply about our students. Each and every one of us has asked ourselves the same question my distracted student asked me on Wednesday morning: What heroism might one day be demanded of us because we’ve chosen to be schoolteachers in America?

Aaron Feis was a football coach and pillar of his community who was killed protecting students from the rampage inside their school. Scott Biegel was a teacher escorting his students to safety when he was shot outside his classroom door. Chris Hixon was an athletic director who, according to his wife, treated every child in his program like his own. They all passed away in service of their schools. Perhaps they didn’t walk into school thinking of themselves as heroes, but their sacrifices that day were symbolic of the love and care educators have for the children they serve.

Numerous educators would have taken similar actions to protect their students. None of us should have to.

Teachers, administrators, counselors, social workers and other support staff are serving as stopgaps to safeguard children’s lives. Legislators, meanwhile, offer nothing but thoughts, prayers and misguided policy “solutions.”

A school is not only a place to learn calculus and chemistry. After I became a teacher, I began to see schools not simply as spaces for creating academic proficiency, but also for building community and developing young people. All these responsibilities are handed to teachers and administrators, and now, we’re also expected to serve as first responders in the face of shooters with deadly legal firearms. Teachers, administrators, counselors, social workers and other support staff are serving as stopgaps to safeguard children’s lives. Legislators, meanwhile, offer nothing but thoughts, prayers and misguided policy “solutions.”

Some state legislators have proposed arming teachers with guns. Apparently, the same legislators who don’t have money to sponsor teachers’ school supplies or their salaries are perfectly willing to fund programs that would hand every educator guns and provide them with firearms training.

Even if teachers were armed, how would a teacher with a pistol defend against a shooter with an AR-15? How does bringing more guns into schools help us to foster positive environments? When I was growing up, news reports splashed tales of children bringing weapons to school and shooting each other over Jordans. Schools all over the nation installed metal detectors to keep guns out. Now, we’re told, the only way to keep kids safe is to bring more guns in?

Thoughts and prayers might make those lawmakers feel better, but consistent and compassionate policy speaks louder than words. At their best, schools are places where children feel seen and heard, not discarded and left behind. If we want to make schools safer, we should start with making them more equitable. Our money, limited as it is, will be better spent on addressing teacher shortages and budget cuts, which hit schools across the nation hard every day.

As for teachers themselves, we’re already overworked and underpaid. But educators of all stripes must vote, organize, and advocate for more humanizing conditions in and out of our school building. In other words, we must politicize our colleagues’ deaths.

Real heroes don’t have perfect storylines and scripts. Real heroes are people who dig deeper into their humanity for the benefit of all. Conscientious teachers already have tools for minimizing violence at their disposal. Take the numerous instances of educators who talked shooters down and prevented senseless bloodshed in their schools. Think about the surviving educators of communities caught in these tragedies; they’re by their students’ sides for the vigils, the wakes and for the rest of the school year. Those heroes mourn their lost students and peers, and still manage to stay strong for their schools.

They shouldn’t have to do any of those things. They do them because they care about their students and because they’re willing to make the sacrifices this profession demands of them. The most sensible thing ― the most heroic thing ― our society can do is ensure that our policies reflect that love, compassion and strength.

José Luis Vilson is a math educator in New York City and the author of This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education.

CONVERSATIONS