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I asked 6 teachers about school violence and their answers were fascinating

by, Lisa Herman, PsyD, LP

When tragedies such as the latest school shooting in Parkland, Florida occur, much of what we see in the news in the aftermath are arguments, hostile debates, and a lack of effective change. A shining light has definitely been watching the determination and strength of the strong, young survivors of the traumatic school shooting eloquently speak out and make their voices heard within the darkest of moments. They are the future and will ensure necessary change.

As a clinical psychologist, I am trained in helping people actualize their inner best self; to strive for solutions and encourage peace physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Every time a senseless tragedy like this occurs, I see an increase in people reaching out to the therapists at my Minnesota based therapy business for requests for online eTherapy services. Anxiety is high in kids, parents, and teachers all over the country and they need support and skills to cope.

What else can be done to ensure this does not happen again?

When it comes to solving problems related to our children, teachers can offer us some of the most intelligent insight. The key to decreasing violence in our schools, as it turns out, is reliant on exploring a number of diverse issues and finding solutions.

I learned that when given an open forum, presented without bias, teachers see the answer to our current problems as a mosaic dilemma, rather than a simple solution. Inside of that mosaic, they tend to find that solutions exist by talking a variety of matters.

Here are six teachers who both poignantly and intelligently describe real solutions to very real problems:

Jessica L.B., Elementary School Principal, Hayward, CA.

“I think we need to pay social workers, public servants, teachers/educators, law enforcement … the same salary they could expect in a private career.”

How have all the tragedies changed your perception of what a teacher is these days?

These tragedies have not changed my perception of what a teacher is these days. I believe increasing amount of poverty and stress that our students experience has lead to these school shootings. The increasing poverty and stress have also had effects on our students behavioral and mental health.

Unfortunately, schools were not historically designed to support needs other than academic needs, and up until the 80’s most schools also operated under the idea that where you came from had a larger influence on your life path, and that schools could do very little to change it. It has only been in the past 40-50 years where we’ve really taken the idea that all kids can learn and ran with it. Now we find ourselves asking, “If I truly believe all kids can learn, then what do I/we need to do here at school to make that happen?” The answer to that has led to the development of many layers of student supports at school including behavioral health plans, community schools, and Coordination of Services Teams (COST) connecting families to all sorts of services (housing, mental health, clothing, parent ed., etc.).

When a child displays signs of emotional trauma, stress or poor mental/behavioral health teachers aren’t sure what to do with those symptoms, and have not typically been trained in how to support students with those symptoms. In the case of what happened recently, they have talked a lot in the news about a handful of people with a lot of concerns about the shooter. I wonder what roadblocks the professionals involved in his life experienced while trying to get him the support he needed. I know they tried. What got in the way? What parts of the systems they operate in didn’t work? How did he slip through the cracks in elementary school? In middle school? Let me be clear, there will be no one person to blame for what he did, other than him. But how could the system he grew up in, be better aligned to meet his needs so that his emotional/mental crisis did not spiral out of control?

Schools NEED to have clinicians, social workers and other mental health professionals on staff, as a part of their COST teams and site leadership teams to help them create systems in which students do not fall through any cracks. Teachers cannot be expected to also become experts in mental or behavioral health, nor can they be expected to catch and fix mental or behavioral health issues. But the school system itself could be expected to do so. And you won’t likely find a principal or district administrator who will argue against it. The problem is that we do not have the funding to keep such a team on staff. Schools/districts are not funded properly enough as it is, and could not reasonably add these staff members without a dramatic increase in funding  (Insert argument here for doubling school funding).

I would like to argue that these mass murder tragedies that take place at schools should NOT change our minds about the role of teachers. It should show us that we need to better fund the Tier 1 preventative systems for behavioral and mental health (and the Tier 2 and 3 as well!).

What do you notice has changed with students, teachers, and administrators (if anything has changed) for better or worse?

We are heartbroken. Most of us see a sisterhood and brotherhood amongst our fellow educators. Most of us love our kids as our own. Most of us see other educators’ kids as part of our community of kids–even if we live in California and they live in Florida. When this happens, it happens to all of us. Most of us have imagined it happening at our own sites, and it terrifies us. The oceans of sadness and anger that fill us are bottomless.

I worry that in order to avoid that bottomless ocean of empathetic grief, we start to intentionally (or unintentionally) stop listening to news, we will ourselves to not think about it, we become numb so that we can carry on. This is not a change for the better. But living in that ocean of grief is not healthy. We support each other in our own communities by talking, sharing, and hugging ourselves and our kids closer. We debrief with our kids, we practice safety routines so we feel prepared. But there is no way to prepare for someone who pulls the fire alarm and then open fires into the crowd. There just isn’t. I’m not sure we all know what else to do as a system.

Personally, I’m angry that I have to get better at this. I’m angry I have to force myself not to cry when kids ask me what we would do at our school if that happened. It is so hard not to cry when talking to a seven year old about this stuff. Because I can’t assure him/her that it won’t happen. I can’t assure him/her that things will be alright and not to worry. I can simply talk about what to do when we feel anxious, how to handle that, and then remind him/her about the safety procedures we already have in place.

How do you cope as a teacher with all you’ve seen in the country over the past several years?

As a school leader, this is a hard question. If I’m honest, I ignore my feelings while at work. This go around, I haven’t had the heart to talk about it at all. Thank God we have a strong SEL component. Thank God my teachers have systems in place–like class meetings– to help kids process what happens. I honestly haven’t been able to take any specific leadership actions this go around. I’ve only talked about it with people who ask me. I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do. But I also work in a high-poverty school with kids who have already been exposed to trauma and violence. We don’t need to bring it up with them and re-traumatize them. We address it when it bubbles up for them and they need us. That’s how we’ve trained our teachers and staff.

What do you think needs to change to end future tragedies?

I think we need to pay social workers, public servants, teachers/educators, law enforcement and other parallel professions the same salary they could expect in a private career.

I think every school in the nation should talk about their Behavioral Health Plan, and discuss the tiered supports they offer. I believe the first tier of that plan should incorporate explicit Social-Emotional Learning in the classroom and programs that teach executive functioning and develop empathy.

I think we need to fully fund and fully staff schools so that they can better identify and meet students’ needs. We also need to reform our public health and health care systems so that all Americans have health coverage that includes all necessary mental and behavioral health services (such as counselling, groups, TBS, ABA…). I think we need a 30 year plan for eliminating poverty and addressing mental health needs of our communities.

I think we all need to become experts on what kind of guns are out there, what they do, and how they are bought and sold. Then we can formulate some common sense regulations that ensure only “good guys” get guns, and that the criminal justice system has the legal teeth they need to go after those who do not follow the laws and regulations.

Ashley C., 1st grade teacher, Tallahassee,FL.

teachers prevent gun violence“Mental health needs to be talked about and addressed. Schools need guidance counselors to actually serve as guidance counselors and not as coordinators and paper pushers.”

How have all the tragedies changed your perception of what a teacher is these days?

I feel I still have a clear view of what a teacher does, but I do not think people outside our profession truly understand. I can’t expect to show up each day and just teach my kids. I am a coach, therapist, social worker, mommy, teacher, nurse, mediator, etc. It never stops.

Every minute (especially in primary elementary school grades) one of the kids need me for something other than just teaching. And “just” teaching is not so easy anyway. Teachers are expected to possess a teaching toolkit, if you will, so every child can be taught in the way they individually learn. We have to plan for all levels of learning, differentiate lessons, provide extension activities for our advanced learners, and below-level work for our struggling babies all while expected to teach standards and a curriculum.

What do you notice has changed with students, teachers, and administrators (if anything has changed) for better or worse?

Sadly, these tragedies just shed more light on how badly teachers are devalued. Many parents praise and love us, but people don’t truly understand how badly we get treated by some parents and guardians as well. I always say, I can teach any child, but the parents are usually what make or break my year. We’re supposed to be our students’ teacher, nurse, therapist, pseudo-mommy (sometimes more than that), and for what? THE KIDS! But it’s getting harder and harder to feel like it’s worth it when we now feel like we have to serve as a police officer or security guard in our own classroom. How is that fair? Why can’t I just focus on loving my students and teaching?

Teachers have seen little to absolutely no increase in salary (for an already abysmal amount) yet now politicians are saying we can get a raise by being trained and having a gun in our classrooms? Give me a break. If you have the money, show it and provide it for our kids through additional classroom resources and pay raises for teachers so we can keep good teachers in the profession, not for weapons. We are already losing wonderful, caring, effective teachers each year due to the continuous amount of pressure with no compensation. We need great teachers to help teach and raise good kids who value others and themselves.

How do you cope as a teacher with all you’ve seen in the country over the past several years?

I try to just stay focused on the kids. No matter what is happening in the news and our country, I still have to show up and give my all to those little faces every day. They don’t deserve anything less.

What do you think needs to change to end future tragedies?

 I think some parents need to take responsibility for their children’s behavior in order to find ways to help them. Many times, parents remain in denial of something going on, even when teachers and the school suggest, and it can lead to bigger problems for that child and classmates. Mental health needs to be talked about and addressed. Schools need guidance counselors to actually serve as guidance counselors and not as coordinators and paper pushers. Class sizes need to be adhered to, not just on paper, but through observation at specific school sites. If teachers had smaller classes they may have more time to tend to each child’s academic and behavioral needs more closely. Children need to learn to value and respect themselves and others. These kids need to be loved and taught how to treat others well.

Scott Z., 4th Grade Teacher, Blaine MN.

prevent mass shootings“I think the first thing all us teachers do is go back and look at ways to build stronger relationships with our students.”

How have all the tragedies changed your perception of what a teacher is these days?

While us teachers will do anything for our kiddos – and we mean that – there is a growing feeling that ‘everything’ includes our lives.  That’s a scary thought.  Years ago if we had to step out our norm to help someone, we would spend our lunch with a student, maybe visit a student at home if they had an extended illness, buy a pair of shoes for a student who can’t afford them, show up at a play or sporting event. Now there feels like there maybe a good chance we have to make a difference in their lives by giving of our life.

What do you notice has changed with students, teachers, and administrators (if anything has changed) for better or worse?

Not sure I have noticed a change with students and I think that’s contributed to the idea that we are an elementary school.  These types of mass shootings are just not talked about with kids of this age group.  There not ready to process all of that – at least not K-3.  I do believe that some discussions need to happen with our 4th/5th graders.

Kids are pretty resilient so I think for the kids that have seen this on the news, it kinda rolls off them a bit.  I say that because I just don’t ever seem to get any questions about these shootings

As far as teachers – there’s a change in tone a bit.  I think as more and more of these happen and we talk more and more about them, it starts to creep into your mind this idea about “how close with this come to us?” and “How will I handle such a chaotic and frightful situation?” and “will I die?”

How do you cope as a teacher with all you’ve seen in the country over the past several years?

Not sure I know this answer.  I think the first thing all us teachers do is go back and look at ways to build stronger relationships with our students.  We know how important that is and how those strong connections change lives.  I think we cope by reminding ourselves of the single most important thing we can give our students are deep meaningful relationships that can make a difference.  We have so much to do on a daily basis that sometimes we just need to step back and engage. Engage more than we did the day before. With all of them.

What do you think needs to change to end future tragedies?

Decorum. Parenting. Video Games. Moral Values. Lifting the stigma on mental health.  Gun control laws. Compassion.  Everyone and every group needs to give a little.  We all need to take some responsibility.  It’s not just one thing – it’s a culmination of so many factors.  NRA needs to give, video game makers need to give, parents need to give.  ‘It takes a village’ has never been so true than it is today.  It’s all of us and we all need to come to the same place and realize we all have responsibilities that can help change the direction we are going.  The direction needs to change.  These are our CHILDREN.

Dara F., 1st Grade Teacher, Lake Worth,FL.

prevent school shootings“Being an educator you try to put yourself into these scenarios, and there is truly NO “preparation” for something like this.”

How have all the tragedies changed your perception of what a teacher is these days?

Being an educator and trying to cope with all of these tragedies has been a really difficult concept to grasp lately. No one really understands “a life of a teacher” unless you are actually in our shoes. I know there are challenges with every profession, but being an educator you really have to put these situations into perspective and be alert of what’s going on day to day. I’m not going to lie – I wake up every morning praying that I will make it home at the end of the day. You hear all of these tragedies going on and you don’t want to believe any of it is real. Parkland is a place I call home and hit me really hard.

Again, being an educator you try to put yourself into these scenarios, and there is truly NO “preparation” for something like this. Yes we have drills and procedures to follow, but what everyone doesn’t understand is that in a situation like this we don’t have enough time to stop and think about what to do. You get into a state of panic and have to make a judgment call in the moment. Thinking about it leaves such an uneasy feeling for me…especially walking in the halls of a school and playing the “what if” scenario in your mind constantly.

What do you notice has changed with students, teachers, and administrators (if anything has changed) for better or worse?

I have noticed that students nowadays can be increasingly disrespectful.  I try to do my best to teach them values and respect and it is a constant battle to explain a smart choice versus a not so smart choice. Something needs to change in the school system or it is just going to get worse. We need more educators.  I am seeing a pattern of younger teachers (just like myself) that are already done and checked out.

Parents and teachers need to work together as a cohesive unit to make their child’s education soar. There is something that must be said about teamwork and working together at home and at school. It will not work otherwise. We are seeing the outcome of that each and every day. There is only so much I can do in the classroom that once they leave my room for the day I am unaware of what is going on.

How do you cope as a teacher with all you’ve seen in the country over the past several years?

I have to just take it day by day and stay strong. Unfortunately, we have dealt with so much of this trauma lately that I just say to myself, “thank goodness it didn’t happen to me”. As bad as that sounds – it is true. But you never know when something like this will happen to you, so staying positive and thankful every day helps me cope a little better. It is never going to end, is it? I have to just be prepared about the future and what is to come. It is a scary world out there and I worry about what is going to come next. But again, day by day…

What do you think needs to change to end future tragedies?

I honestly do not have an answer for this- I believe there needs to be a lot done to make this end. It is very hard to even watch the news or go on social media right now just because there is so much controversy going on and as a educator it is hard to speak up for what I believe. I do not believe arming teachers is the answer- as we are teachers, not cops or security. It is a lot to ask of us for what we have to do on top of everything.

Brent O., High School Teacher, Plymouth, MN.

school shooting prevention“I think the first thing that needs to change is the idea that this is just a gun issue or just a mental health issue…”

How have all the tragedies changed your perception of what a teacher is these days?

I’ve always felt like I’ve been called to serve my students and help them see their potential for success. When I first started teaching  English, I wanted to teach my students how to interact with literature and learn to write, but more importantly I wanted them to learn how to dream, work hard through adversity and strive for their goals.

Now I’m a director of a program for students who are at risk of not graduating for various reasons. My focus is providing them hope and guiding them in their journey to get back on track and thrive within our school and also learn the skills to find success in their next step, whatever that might be.

I guess these tragedies have forced me to realize that I’m also a protector – an adult who will do anything to keep my students in a safe, respectful learning environment. I don’t like to think of the worst case scenarios, but in today’s world teachers and students are forced to learn lock down protocols and how we would handle a dangerous situation within our buildings. It’s something I never thought about when I was in school to become a teacher; that I might have to sacrifice my life to save my students. It’s something I pray will never happen.

What do you notice has changed with students, teachers, and administrators (if anything has changed) for better or worse?

I don’t know if anything really huge has changed with students, teachers or administrators besides the fact we must be prepared to best handle a violent situation. Some want to blame these events on video games, lack of parenting or something wrong with “this generation.” I don’t see it that way. We had violent video games when I was a teenager, we had single parent families, each generation complaining about the next, and these events weren’t happening on a pretty consistent basis.

How do you cope as a teacher with all you’ve seen in the country over the past several years?

I cope by trying to see the good in my students. By choosing to see the positives but also looking for the warning signs in mental health. I pray a lot for change in gun laws, more financial support to lower class sizes, to add more counselors, social workers, principals and support staff and for a country that must face these issues in order to stop these tragedies from happening and truly protect our students, our children, our future.

What do you think needs to change to end future tragedies?

What needs to change? I think the first thing that needs to change is the idea that this is just a gun issue or just a mental health issue or a desensitizing of violence issue and stop making it political. This is a human being issue. Do we care enough about our children, grandchildren, neighbors, and our future to attack this issue from all sides?

I strongly believe these tragedies would not happen to the degree they do if we can make some common sense gun laws. No hunter, no gun enthusiast, no human being not in battle needs access to guns that can kill multiple children within seconds. Who needs an AR-15. No one. Not even those who strongly believe in the second amendment. We need to have common sense when it comes to these types of guns or this will continue. We must come together as a nation on this and not allow it to become political.

We need to attack the issue from a mental health side as well. We need more training on mental health issues, we need to equip schools with more resources to help struggling students. We need schools with more trained adults that can catch some warning signs – more counselors and social workers, more positive adults in the lives of our struggling youth.

We don’t need to arm our teachers with guns, but rather with training, time and reduced class sizes that allow them to make connections with students in a positive way. We need to look at how violence and viewing violence has an impact on our children. We need less of us vs. them and more WE. We the People need to decide that it’s time to take action on all angles of this issue in order to prevent as much as possible these tragic, tragic events.

Sarah K., 9th Grade Teacher, Miami, FL.

“The big change I see in teachers and administrators is in the way we must cope each time a school shooting occurs.”

How have all the tragedies changed your perception of what a teacher is these days?

Teaching is one of the most rewarding jobs in the world. The bond built between my students each year is truly priceless. Beyond teaching the curriculum, I get to guide them in life and help them learn how to make good choices. The thought of any one of my students’ lives being stolen from them just as they are figuring out their lives makes my heart heavy with sadness. It awful to have these “what if” conversations with these young kids about how to best save their lives if a shooter walks through the door.

Its sad that we have code red drills each month which comprise of hiding silently in the dark praying that this drill never becomes a reality because you know in your heart that in a real event this tactic would just makes us lambs to the slaughter. As a teacher, you do your best to keep the students’ anxiety down, but when there are more school shootings in a year then there were days of the school year – you just got to pray you aren’t at the wrong school at the wrong time because, let’s face it, no school is safe.

What do you notice has changed with students, teachers, and administrators (if anything has changed) for better or worse?

The big change I see in teachers and administrators is in the way we must cope each time a school shooting occurs. They are no longer an anomaly that can be explained through some rare set of occurrences – they are frequent and increasingly more deadly. There tends to be feelings of numbness, dejection, sadness, and the want to keep up normalcy.

How do you cope as a teacher with all you’ve seen in the country over the past several years?

I am getting more and more upset with our leaders for failing to keep what should be the safest place for a child to be safe. It doesn’t matter what caused Nikolas Cruz to commit the murders… it matters that on a Wednesday afternoon, on Valentine’s Day, 17 students/teachers went to school and work that day and never came home. I am angry, frustrated and frankly disheartened.

What do you think needs to change to end future tragedies?

I would love to see our congress pass something to help curb these mass shootings. Make it harder for people to get semi automatic weapons! It seems like we want to avoid passing something because it MAY not work, but doing nothing is a disgrace and truly despicable if you ask me.

CONCLUSION:

By working from a position of a unified front, parents and educators can solve these problems together. All too often we are too busy trying to “be right” and that’s drowning out ample instances of useful dialogue.

Increased mental health awareness, stricter gun laws, and potentially, enhanced school security, can all coexist. If we listen more than we debate, we might find the answers to our problems in more fluid way.

I would like to thank each and every one of these incredible educators for taking time out of their busy lives in order to educate the rest of us. The work you do helping our youth become competent adults should be praised and applauded every day.

 

A special thank you to Cory Hedgepeth and Dave Bearon for their expertise and guidance with writing, editing, and formatting.

 

Dr. Lisa is the founder of Synergy eTherapy and Licensed Psychologist in MN and NY.

To schedule your FREE consultation with her, please click HERE.

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