Saturday, December 22, 2012

Being a Teacher in the Modern Era

For those of you who may not know or may have forgotten, I am a teacher.  It is a responsibility I take very seriously, possibly more so now than ever before.  When I became a teacher, I knew it was my responsibility to teach my students how to read, write and do math.  It was my responsibility to broaden their vocabularies, expand their knowledge of all things scientific, and create in them a love of history.  Nine years later, I have a new responsibility to add to all the others.  In a very real way, I am responsible for the safety of every child that passes through my classroom door.
Don't get me wrong.  Teachers have always been responsible for the safety of their pupils.  However, when I first started teaching that meant counting heads before the bus left to make sure we didn't leave anybody behind on the field trip.  It meant keeping a watchful eye on the playground during recess to make sure everyone was playing nicely.  It meant keeping disagreements from turning into pushing, shoving, and hitting.  Now, though, it means something different.
Keeping students safe in the modern era means running a background check on their parents before allowing them to chaperone the field trip.  It means running those same parents' driver's licenses through a machine which checks a national database to ensure they aren't a convicted sex offender before allowing them to enter the classroom.  Keeping my students safe means that if a parent shows up at my classroom door without a printed visitors badge, I must call the office immediately.  In fact, even with a visitor's badge, I am never permitted to release a student to a parent that shows up at my door.  All early dismissals are to be authorized through the office via the intercom system, not by the parent showing up and requesting their child from the teacher.  These are safety measures that we have all come to accept as necessary.
In the modern era, keeping students safe means not just practicing fire drills, but earthquake drills, tornado drills, gas leak drills, and yes, shooter in the building drills.
In an act of kindness, my principal kept the students and staff completely in the dark about the horrors unfolding in Connecticut last Friday.  One parent showed up in the classroom that day to volunteer.  I wasn't expecting the parent, but I also wasn't unhappy to see him as I desperately needed spelling lists and math homeworks copied.  I later realized that he had come in more to put eyes on his child than to help with my copying needs. 

Ironically, our school had scheduled a safety drill for that Friday afternoon. Which drill you ask? Was it the earthquake drill, the tornado drill, the gas leak drill?  No, it was the shooter in the building drill.  Officially, it's called a lock down drill, but the jist of the drill is that we practice what to do if there is an armed intruder in the building.  We held the drill in spite of the days events, which some might view as in poor taste, but the other option would have been to do the drill on Monday, when the children would have known about Connecticut and been that much more scared. 

I assure you, practicing the lock down drill is scary even on a good day.  We lock doors that are normally never locked when the children are in the building.  We turn off lights, close blinds, and hide silently in darkened corners until the drill is ended.  The children always ask questions about why we have to do this and some get scared by the seriousness we show about hiding and being quiet.  We do our best to allay their fears and assure them that they are safe at school, but the events of last week prove that those fears are more than justifiable

The principal called a staff meeting after dismissal, explained what had happened in Connecticut and why we had a police presence in the parking lot during dismissal, and then told us all to go home and hug our families. My honey had been especially texty on Friday, lots of texted ILY's and wishes that he was hugging me.  I had responded by telling him that I was so lucky to have such a sweet and expressive man in my life.  Once I got home and turned on the TV, I found out why he'd been so expressive.  My honey had also made the executive decision not to mention the school shooting to me while I was at work for fear of worrying me.

Monday morning was a challenge all by itself. The kids had so many questions and needed a lot of reassuring that everything was okay and we would keep them safe.  The children weren't the only ones in need of reassuring.  A student teacher in my building came in to work looking worn through with worry.  She was emotional, distracted, and looking for answers.  Her mentor teacher was in a morning meeting, so it fell to me to get her ship shape before the kids arrived. 

I told her what everyone should realize about the school shooting in New Town.  It could have been so much worse.  While what did happen was unthinkably awful and horrific, the number of victims was limited to the two connected kindergarten classrooms because every teacher in that building did exactly what they were supposed to do.  They got their students safely behind locked doors and hid them from sight, sometimes bodily blocking the door to protect their young charges.  I told the young student teacher what all the other teachers already knew. Our job is to make school a safe and happy place for our students, so it was time for her to check her worries at the door and be present for her students.

Teachers all over the country went to work on Monday morning.  They didn't call in sick for fear that it could happen to them, even though some parents kept their kids home for that very reason.  They put on a brave face, perfected a very British stiff upper lip, and read through the half dozen school security emails reminding them of safety procedures.  They smiled at their students from the doorway as they arrived at the classroom, greeted them all by name, and issued calming reassurances and hugs, as needed.  They made the day as normal as possible so that every child could relax and get down to the business of learning.  That is what I did for my students on Monday and it's what the student teacher did, too.

I began this blog with an old American proverb, "If you can read this, thank a teacher."  But, now I would like to propose a new proverb.

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