MB

Nathaniel Sweet, the former HCPS legislative intern, current Political Science major at the University of South Florida, and guest author of Shifting the Discipline Discussion, returns with this short reflection on differentiating between behaviors and, ultimately, what the fundamental challenge is behind behaviors at certain schools here in Hillsborough and across Florida.

I think that when we talk about our approach to student behavior, we need to make a distinction between different levels of behavior problems. If we’re talking about a student who gets in an altercation with a friend over some personal drama, or a student who’s trying their best but gets frustrated and acts out, those are textbook restorative justice cases. That’s all about developing grit, empathy, compassion, and conflict resolution.

Cases like persistent discipline problems, or violence against school staff, or major destruction of school property–those are different issues entirely; they fall well outside of reasonable expectations for classroom management. However, I still think that it’s unwise to use suspension in these cases. Instead, I think we should re-think referrals, not in terms of suspensions, but in terms of a referral you’d get from your general practitioner to see a specialist. More on that in a second.

Like you mentioned in our last conversation, it seems like the worst behavior problems are concentrated at extreme ends of the income distribution. Some of the wealthiest kids feel like they’re invincible, while some of the poorest kids feel like they’re invisible. The former think they can get away with stuff no matter what, while the latter believe they’ll be punished and pushed out no matter what. Entitlement at one end, disillusion at the other.

And in some ways, they’re both right. Very few rich suburban white kids end up poor later in life regardless of what they do, and the inverse is true for poor urban and rural kids. Your home zip code is a much stronger predictor of whether you’ll get caught up in the criminal justice system than your actual propensity to commit a crime. All the while, the animating force behind these outbursts tends to be something deeper & outside of the classroom–after all, disruptive students are very much in the minority.

When it comes to the poorest kids, then, I think that disruptive students need referrals in the sense that they’re sent to three resources: a) a counselor, to help them unpack their feelings about school and why they act out; b) a social worker, to uncover the bigger problems they face that might be driving their behavior; and c) an ombuds, someone who they can trust and rely on to advocate for them in creating a plan to get them back on track.

Critical to this framework is that it recognizes the seriousness of the student’s misbehavior without inherently criminalizing or pathologizing them. It approaches the student with curiosity rather than presumption, hopefully helping to re-build trust. Of course, that can only begin to happen if district leaders work with teachers and school employees to demand more funding from Tallahassee, but it always goes back to funding and leadership anyway, doesn’t it?

As a broader matter, I think that there’s a strong role for educators to play in movements advocating for policies that combat income inequality and child poverty. Rich kids wouldn’t feel like they were above the rules if we didn’t have an economy that concentrates such a huge amount of wealth and power in the hands of the few.

More importantly, however, we wouldn’t need to invest so heavily in wrap-around services like healthcare, nutrition, and mental health for low-income kids if those things were guaranteed as rights by state and federal governments. We wouldn’t need to worry about homeless students if cities and agencies guaranteed affordable housing, either through subsidy or public provision. We wouldn’t need to worry about students coming to school unprepared or without supplies if their parents had stable full-time work that paid a living wage.

To put a finer point on it, maybe the solution for helping poor kids learn is just to make them less poor.

As always, if you are interested in writing a guest post for the Teacher Voice blog or appear on the podcast to discuss the issues, please email me at 1teachervoice@gmail.com. Thanks for reading and sharing with others, everyone!

CTC

This guest post was written by Nathaniel Sweet, a University of South Florida student majoring in Political Science with a minor in Education. He spent this spring semester working as a legislative intern for the Hillsborough County School Board, and he sent this to me via email. It has been published with his permission, and I hope that you read and share his perspective with others. We will need many, varied voices sharing possible solutions once the difficult discussions about what needs to be addressed in HCPS begin.

I wanted to offer some items for consideration in terms of the discipline problems that the Hillsborough school district has been facing. Obviously, I’m not a classroom teacher, and it’s certainly not my place to judge what teachers decide are the working conditions they need, especially if they work in a Title I school. They’re the professionals, so I’d trust their judgement more than anybody, especially when it comes to day-to-day issues of classroom management.

But I wanted to try to shift the conversation around these issues, because I think the district’s discipline problems go deeper than their handling of referrals. I personally believe that initiatives like SEL, PBIS, and restorative justice are absolutely important reforms, but that the district’s implementation of these programs has been ham-handed and insufficient. Time and time again, it seems like teachers are required to incorporate new and contradictory requirements into the classroom, without a reduction in other obligations and without the necessary groundwork on the district’s part.

A truly effective restorative justice program requires more than a few units of PD and a hard requirement to reduce referrals. It takes an institutional lift, and a comprehensive roll-out across multiple cohorts of students. By the time a student with discipline problems reaches the secondary level, those habits are set pretty firmly. It’d take a lot of time, resources, and focus to get one of them brought into a restorative justice framework, resources that our schools just don’t have. To me, it seems like the most viable way get it right is to work comprehensively and start early. Instead, the district moved under outside pressure to pass the buck onto teachers and principals.

Make no mistake, I think that disproportionate discipline, particularly against low-income students of color, is a nationwide problem and a serious driver of the school-to-prison pipeline. Implicit biases among teachers and administrators likely plays some role. After all, we live in a country where racism and classism are our cultural base temperature–an inescapable artifact of our history. But focusing exclusively on implicit bias shifts the burden onto individual educators, when the biggest factors driving these outcomes are systemic. It’s a direct consequence of bad policy.

Take, for instance, the role of high-stakes testing. It’s obviously in the interest of teachers and students that kids are well-behaved in the classroom. But the pressures of high-stakes tests amp this up to eleven. Suddenly, the teacher’s livelihood (and the school’s very existence) is on the line, and that means maximizing the amount of time devoted to the standards. Whereas additional time could previously be used toward something like SEL, now there’s a very strong incentive to push disruptive students out of class.

This same high-stakes testing culture, alongside defunding at the state level, forces districts into a defensive crouch. Long-term questions fall to the wayside and systemic changes become impossible, because the most important questions become the current year’s test scores and the next year’s budget. Any additional policy changes will be highly reactive instead of proactive, and will likely be under-resourced.

It took civil rights complaints to institute PBIS, and now that the district has made facial changes to keep critics satisfied, they have a strong incentive to wait until the next crisis to do anything different. It would be easy to blame district leaders for this holding pattern, but the truth is that this is the incentive structure our state and federal government have created: anything other than money and testing is a secondary question.

Meanwhile, at the classroom level, it’s apparent that teachers are expected to fulfill completely contradictory goals. We make it difficult to suspend disruptive students, yet we leave in place the incentives to push them out. We add additional requirements for things like SEL, yet we still expect teachers to devote full time to the standards. We want students to be well-behaved and interested in course content, yet we make curricula extremely regimented and boring. We set up an already pointless game of standardized tests, impose requirements that make it harder for public schools to compete, and then punish public schools for the ensuing results.

At the end of this pipeline is an underclass of burnt-out teachers and disenfranchised students. In the presence of high-stakes tests and in the absence of proper funding, at-risk students have nobody to give them the time of day, even as overworked teachers and counselors try their best. From an early age they’ll stare down the barrel of a life marked by poverty and prison, calling into question the value of school altogether. The testing culture and zero-tolerance will condition them from elementary school to view learning as irrelevant and school authorities as hostile.

And yet, because the policies are set, the budgets are thin, and the test scores are essential, the only reform that districts can muster is forcing those kids to sit in a class they don’t want to attend, while making it impossible for the teacher to engage them. We’ve allowed the “education reform” movement to turn students and teachers against each other, when true learning requires them to work together.

The solution is not to go back to pushing kids away. It’s to move forward in bringing kids in. To that point, restorative justice and high-stakes tests simply cannot coexist, period. Restorative justice is about empathy, cooperation, and shared responsibility. High-stakes “accountability” is about exclusion, competition, and blame.

Again, this is just the perspective I’ve developed from my own learning and experience, but I think it offers a pretty comprehensive view of the problem. Certainly teachers, principals, and district leaders have some level of responsibility in these issues, but time and time again their hands are tied by systemic problems, most of which come down from Washington and Tallahassee.

If you enjoyed these insights from Nathaniel Sweet, you can find him often posting in the Tampa Bay Times’ Gradebook forum on Facebook. As always, if you are interested in writing a guest post for the blog, please email me at 1teachervoice@gmail.com. Thanks!

 

Bianca
Bianca Goolsby, MBA, Brand Strategist and now former HCPS Jennings Middle School teacher

As of today, Bianca Goolsby no longer works for Hillsborough County Public Schools. Approximately two weeks ago her blog post was published as a guest column in the weekend edition of the Tampa Bay Times. The piece generated a lot of discussion on social media with many, many teachers from schools all across the district and state lamenting the lack of discipline in Florida’s schools. As noted in my own blog post, although suspensions are clearly on the decline, students and teachers alike are suffering the ramifications that include a self-perpetuating cycle of emboldened misbehavior met with leniency.

I will warn listeners of this episode that what you hear may disturb you. Bianca clearly pulls no punches about what is wrong with her school and how she tried to generate a conversation for how these issues could be met head on in a proactive manner, only to receive lip service with no follow up–if she even got an answer at all. I spent much of the conversation listening as she poured her heart out, occasionally speaking with tears in her eyes while conveying the concern and love she has for her students.

Please listen and share this important conversation with others. Bianca’s words are a powerful testament to the challenges numerous teachers face on a daily basis, and underscore the need for a long overdue conversation for how we can address these challenges head on. And, if you can make it, please join Bianca, myself, and others at the next HCPS School Board meeting at 3:30 pm on Tuesday, June 11th at the Temple Terrace Town Hall.

If you’d like to read some of Bianca’s former students’ stories she talks about during the podcast, you can click the “Student” links below:

Student A   Student B   Student C   Student D   Student E

Goolsby-Alege Email
The email sent to Yinka Alege that Bianca reads during the podcast.

This is fine

About two weeks ago, Bianca Goolsby publicly declared her resignation from Hillsborough County Schools. Though reactions were swift and strong, her words provided the impetus to a much needed conversation among teachers, ESPs, and community stakeholders.

If we asked teachers at some of the most challenging schools in our district, many would share her perspective and know that the events Bianca describe are an all too common occurrence at a number of our schools. And for those who would doubt the veracity of her claims, the data from her peers clearly back up the assertions she makes. But what about at other schools across HCPS?

Numerous anecdotes from fellow teachers at other sites lament how bad behavior has become at their schools. It seems that in the last 6-7 years especially, the words and actions of the most unruly students have only grown steadily worse while the actual repercussions for these students seems to have an inverse correlation. Here’s what the data has to say:

07-08 Discipline Data

A decade ago, there were 191,965 students enrolled in Hillsborough. Out of those students, 7% (about 1 out of every 13) served an out-of-school suspension, and roughly 16% of all students (close to 1 in 6) were sent to in-school-suspension.

17-18 Discipline Data

Last year, however, when the district enrolled 211,959 students, there was a slight decrease to OSS, with only 5.7% of students staying home for various reasons; in-school suspension had a drastic decline down to just under 7%.

While all of this data is publicly available here, it would be interesting to dig into these numbers to see the actual length of suspensions. When I first started teaching 15 years ago, fighting was a zero tolerance issue. The aggressor was sent home for 10 days, and the other combatant received 5 days. Now principals have to beg their bosses just to give a kid two days out of school for very serious offenses.

So have students gotten better over the last decade, or are school districts throughout Florida simply not reporting incidences so as to reduce the number of them on paper?

All of this combined ultimately strikes at the heart of the issue–when students receive little to no consequences for their actions, they are emboldened. We now live in an age in which teachers themselves are physically attacked by students, which is an indictment against our entire culture that also shows how little we respect teachers as caring adults who only seek to serve our students in the community.

Bianca shared many details during our conversation yesterday, and they echoed many of my wife’s experiences in Renaissance schools during her first 12 years teaching. In her final year at one particular inner city middle school, she was attacked by a 6th grader who was swinging his backpack at her (she was luckily only hit with straps) while stomping through the classroom breaking things including a favorite picture frame that included our wedding photo on her desk.

He was “talked to” by administrators, but otherwise received no consequence. Destruction of public property and attempting to injure a teacher = “don’t do it again” finger-wagging.

What the district needs to focus on–especially at the secondary level where these issues pose real challenges to the learning environment–is to develop a uniform discipline policy that has immediate consequences that scaffold upward depending on frequency and/or severity. At my school, for instance, our principal still does old fashioned “lock outs”; when students are tardy, he gets on the intercom and asks students who are not in the classroom to come to the elevator. From there, an administrator gives the kids a red pass to notify the teacher as they return to class, and the student in question picks up trash the very same day at lunch. After a couple lunch details, it escalates to ISS. The result? We had 59 total disciplinary incidences last year, whereas many other high schools had well over double that amount.

There’s also an issue of “disappearing referrals,” a seemingly all-too-common occurrence in certain challenging environments. Whether the principals at these schools perceive pressure from downtown or if they have been actively given orders to delete discipline referrals from the system is unknown. But many teachers have reported this practice of either acknowledging the referral way too late so that the consequence is completely decoupled from the action, by never doing anything with them at all, or, in some cases, having these deleted from the system altogether.

This has become a massive issue that needs to be rectified. Rather than “gaslighting” whistleblowers such as Bianca Goolsby, we need to all work together to devise a plan that is fair to all parties involved. While there was clearly a need years ago to adjust disciplinary measures due to the disproportionate amount of African-Americans and Hispanics being suspended, the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that we are bordering on sheer pandemonium at some schools. All students need to be in school, and trying to keep kids in school by suspending them less is noble but clearly has had unintended consequences.

We need to address this issue rather than hide from it. The unruly behavior at some of the most challenging schools is certainly hastening the flight to charters in our area, and more parents will probably avail themselves of the new scholarships to attend private schools if they can. Why? Because bad behavior is still not tolerated in these places, and students who disrupt the learning or potentially harm others are kicked out altogether. The sooner we begin open and honest conversations involving the entire community for how we can serve Jennings or any struggling school in Hillsborough, the better it will be for everyone affected by these negative behaviors.

PTSD

This month’s guest post is the second by Seth Hopkins-Federman, the teacher and current doctoral student who wrote “Band-Aids for Broken Bones“.

It was a headline many weren’t expecting nor were aware of. One day scrolling through Facebook I happened upon an article titled: PTSD and Teachers. I looked at it with a puzzlement—isn’t PTSD usually associated with combat veterans or those involved in high impacting trauma? The inconvenient truth is now teaching as a profession is listed under the causes of PTSD.

In reviewing the research of teachers with PTSD, the findings are limited but the reports and studies that have been done are eye opening to say the least. As I last wrote, mental health professionals were seeing an increase of depression within educators but a truly disturbing statistic is that teachers diagnosed with PTSD has risen since the early 2000s, but the data is inconsistent due to the fact teachers are afraid disclosure will lead to job loss. The main culprits? Student and administrator behavior.

It’s becoming an everyday occurrence where you will see a video pop up of a student attacking or berating a teacher. The experience leaves behind scars that may not be just physical. Many teachers report being assaulted, emotionally abused, and left without the tools to deal with the trauma. But perhaps the most confounding statistic was the PTSD caused by fellow teachers and administrators. While we may view Horrible Bosses as a cautionary tale of corporate greed and power mongering, the research shows that a leader’s actions can have a profound effect on whether or not a teacher continues his or her career. It begs the question: how has adopting a business culture in a career centered around fostering relationships harmed the people in the profession?

As a writer, you’re often told not to put yourself in the story; however, this does hit home as I suffer from PTSD from a childhood trauma. While the details may sound like they’re from a Lifetime movie, it has taken years to properly deal with the triggers and furthermore understand the place the trauma has in my life. But notice how I said years. Some case studies show that teaching induced PTSD is never given the true assistance it needs. Teachers report that the recovery time allotted is usually told to be a day or overnight. We have to be the experts when dealing with student trauma, right? It’s unrealistic to expect that an employee can turnaround on a dime in regards to dealing with these events. This area of research is still relatively new but given the rise of cases and the recent influx of social media examples, we may soon be dealing with a new part of the teacher shortage epidemic.

Are you an educator looking to share your perspective? Teacher Voice welcomes guest posts on any topic/issue related to our profession. If you’d like to write a post, please email it to 1teachervoice@gmail.com. Thanks!

IMG_2914
Rob Brown (left), Art Roberts (center), Me (right): three nerds who love literature and teaching.

To use the current lingo of the kids, this episode of the Teacher Voice podcast is LIT! Considering this is episode “42”, I knew I wanted to sit down with my great friends, Art and Rob, who are English teachers at my school. We talk about why we love literature, its value in today’s day and age, as well as some of our favorite authors and poets. Please listen and share with other teachers or fans of literature in general.

Thanks again for listening, everyone, and have a great week!

P.S. – Here’s the article from The Atlantic I reference in the event it piqued your interest: “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers”

And here’s the brief clip with Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba, about how and why we must change our education system to focus on what makes us uniquely human:

FirstResponder2
Aaron Feis, left, lost his life saving children; Scot Peterson, right, effectively did nothing.

Today is Valentine’s Day.

It is also the painful first anniversary of the tragic school shooting that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and ended the lives of 17 people.

Three of those who lost their lives that day were educators who sacrificed their lives to protect their students.

Three teachers who cared deeply about our children and their future.

*****

We live in an era of mass shootings that show no sign of slowing down. Since Columbine in 1999, there have been 85 school shootings that have killed a total of 223 people, including teachers and staff. On average that means there have been over four school shootings a year, with each of those killing just over three people per occurrence.

But here’s the thing…

How many traditional “first responders” died in all of those school shootings over the last two decades?

Zero.

According to the recently released Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission report, only one School Resource Officer (SRO) was wounded across those 20 years. Here are just a few notable quotes from the study’s findings:

“School personnel were most frequently involved in stopping attacks; school resource officers were less so.”

“High school attacks were stopped 11 times by administrators, teachers, and staff.”

“School administrators, teachers or staff members were sometimes among the first individuals killed.”

Chris Hixon
Chris Hixon, Navy veteran and teacher who died protecting students at MSD.

Educators may have been hired to teach the next generations that follow their own, but in an era of mass school shootings we have all become the real first responders. Even if a school is lucky enough to have an SRO or SSO (School Safety Officer), one person is not enough to stop a killing spree that will last only minutes at most. It takes administrators, teachers, and ESPs to work together and communicate when there are threats to student safety. Most of the time this vigilance is enough…and yet the average across the last two decades states that four times this year, it won’t be.

And the odds are that it will be school personnel who sacrifice their lives for the children, not the school resource officer.

This isn’t necessarily something that has only happened since Columbine either. Just a few days ago was the 31st anniversary of the first school shooting in the Tampa Bay region, which happened at Pinellas Park High School in 1988. Three people were shot by the young man amidst a scuffle in the lunch room: two were injured, one was killed, all were site-based administrators.

The reason these facts are being addressed is to highlight a simple fact: if educators are truly the first responders in a world of mass shootings that happen with some regularity at schools, the risks we take for our children and profession should be duly compensated.

First responders, as they are traditionally defined (fire, police, sheriff), receive a retirement multiplier of 3.0 from the state of Florida, which they undoubtedly deserve. Therefore, if a firefighter, police officer, or sheriff’s deputy works for 30 years, the Florida Retirement System pays them a pension based on 30 years times the multiplier, meaning they receive 90% of their highest five years averaged together.

Scot Peterson, for instance, now gets to take home a monthly pension of $8,702.

But an administrator, teacher or ESP? Our multiplier is 1.6, just barely over half of what traditional “first responders” receive and deserve. The top of the pay scale here in Hillsborough is $66K, a far cry from the $101,879 dollars Scot Peterson received to ride around campus on a golf cart all day until the moment when he was actually needed and did nothing. Meanwhile, a teacher in HCPS with 30 years of experience would receive only 48% of his or her final salary, netting that person a monthly benefit of $2,640.

How is this fair?

Scott Beigel
Scott Beigel, the third teacher at MSD who died saving the lives of students.

Here’s the solution: at a bare minimum, all site-based school employees–whether administrators, teachers, guidance counselors, education support personnel…anyone who directly has contact with kids and could potentially stop the next school shooting–should have their retirement multiplier pushed up to 2.0 so that a 30 year career receives 60% of the highest five years’ average. Considering the Florida Retirement System (FRS) is routinely touted as one of the best in the nation with nearly 85% of future liabilities already covered, surely there must be a way for the Florida Legislature to increase funding to the program to raise the multiplier to 2.0

And if our legislators cannot or will not at least lift the multiplier, the least they could do to compensate our additional risk as the real first responders at schools is to give us back the 3% we’ve been forced to contribute to our own paltry pensions since 2011.

If you read this and are an employee at a school site in one of our 67 counties, or a public education advocate who thinks those who protect children deserve more, please call or email your legislators to ask them to raise our retirement multiplier.

Related: The Day After… – students share their thoughts and concerns, hopes and fears in class the day after the Parkland tragedy.

Related: I’m Angry – guest post by a fellow teacher describing the initial surge of anger she felt after what happened at MSD.

Related: About Those Teachers with Guns… – brief write up containing data after surveying students and fellow faculty members–specifically those who are military veterans–about how they feel regarding arming teachers.

Related: About Those Teachers with Guns: Redux – guest post by another fellow teacher with many important points legislators should consider when weighing the big picture of public education in Florida.

 

 

IMG_1747
The Florida Legislature wants to arm teachers as part of a “marshal program”

In the wake of the Parkland tragedy, ideas for how to make schools safer have taken over the current legislative session. Governor Scott forwarded his proposal, as did the House and Senate. While I applaud the multi-pronged approach including raising the age for gun purchases to 21, implementing a mandatory 3 day waiting period, better background checks, increased funding for mental health services, adding more SROs to campuses, et cetera, I firmly do not believe that arming teachers in schools should be part of the solution.

Before I get into the data and enumerate my reasons, let me unequivocally state the following: I am not “anti-gun” per se. I have handled guns, fired them, and fully comprehend the power that they possess. I believe it is reasonable for people to own a pistol, shotgun, or rifle for home defense or hunting. I do draw the line at assault weapons such as the AR-15, and do not believe anyone should have access to guns that have so much destructive power.

I am not a gun owner, however. And yet, as an independent voter and someone who assiduously tries to be a political moderate/centrist, I have no problem with those who own guns and even carry them legally with a concealed carry permit. But I object to arming teachers on mathematical and philosophical premises, which are intertwined and I hope to explain.

A recent Quinnipiac poll shows that nearly 60% of Americans are against arming teachers, and just over 60% of Americans want a full ban on assault weapons.

Beyond these two data points, I conducted my own hasty research today to provide additional data. Granted, I acknowledge my data set may be relatively small and considered insignificant, but it’s still illustrative of broader trends I’ve seen online and in other articles.

Administration: 100% of my school’s administration do NOT want teachers armed.

Students: 80.4% of my students do NOT want teachers armed and would NOT feel safer if teachers had guns on campus.

Teachers—and not just any teachers, I specifically only asked teachers who work at my school who also happen to also be veterans—86% do NOT want teachers armed and expressed additional reservations about this idea. In fact, Brandon Haught of Florida Citizens for Science is a former Marine who teaches at another school in Florida and wrote an op-ed that expresses much of what I heard today.

Beyond the data points and still in the mathematical realm is basic probability. By adding any guns to any campus the chance of being shot at school statistically increases. It’s really that simple. It may not be much, but it would be an increase nonetheless.

There’s also the funding issue, which is one of my chief concerns. While Governor Scott certainly made headlines with his promise of $500 million dollars, how can the state even afford this? Each year it seems the state has to rob various trust funds just to keep up with rising costs because the Republican-led Legislature is so unwilling to raise fees or taxes, a stance that will, in the long run, completely jeopardize Florida’s future. And if the state simply had $500 million lying around, why wasn’t that already included in the education budget (or for healthcare, infrastructure, affordable housing, or any other number of priorities that could use the additional funding)? We cannot count on this to be recurring funding either, which would further hamstring an education system that is woefully underfunded and completely cash strapped.

From a philosophical perspective, schools are not places for guns, they are the physical manifestation of learning. They are places where each and every day caring adults try to instill good habits of mind and character. We want our children to become lifelong learners, to be engaged citizens, and to learn how to care for others in the broader community. Education professionals carrying guns will only heighten anxiety among our students and be disruptive to the learning process. Piles of studies have clearly demonstrated that students who are experiencing chronic stress do not learn well, and they’re already stressed out enough due to high stakes testing, bullying, social media, and just being a child in the 21st century in general. Why would we add to their stress?

More than anything else, I want every legislator in the state of Florida to take a long hard look at the political cartoon at the top of this post. Teachers are already overburdened, overworked and underpaid. We do so much for kids day in and day out, but we shouldn’t have to worry about being responsible for a gun on top of everything else we already do.

Inside-Out-Anger-shoutcrop

This guest post was written by Michelle Hamlyn, a fellow teacher here in Hillsborough County Public Schools and member of Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

I’m Angry

In the past, I’ve been heartbroken at the lives lost, the upheaval after, the despair of the families. This time I’m angry.

I’m angry that mass shootings keep happening in one of the richest, most civilized countries in the world. A country that should be able to figure this out.

I’m angry that schools need to be secured. How do you secure a playground, a PE field, a campus with multiple buildings? And do we want our schools to look like fortresses and prisons?

I’m angry that legislators are bought by special interest groups, leaving rational conversation and problem-solving in the dust. I’m angry that any conversation about gun control results in “You can’t take my guns.” I don’t want your damn guns. I want to have a conversation where you and I can find a solution to the current madness. But that would require us to both come from a stand of compassion and understanding, not defensiveness and posturing.

I’m angry that those same legislators have decimated mental health programs, even though the number of mentally ill people hasn’t diminished. I’m angry that the NRA doesn’t include lobbying for better mental health programs while they’re lobbying for gun rights. I’m angry that time and again, the controls in place have “missed something” about the shooter, thus rendering the controls pointless and dangerous. I’m angry that the government continues to tell us how safe we are, when anyone can see that we’re not.

I’m angry that legislators have also decimated public education and currently see it as a money-maker for billionaires. I’m angry that those decisions have led to public school policies that are conducive to school shootings, like not having enough mental health professionals on hand to adequately deal with students’ issues in a timely, meaningful manner. And stressing testing so much that students actually believe the test defines them. Which makes them even more stressed and more likely to lash out at others.

I’m angry that everyone thinks the solution to this is having more school resource officers. Or, even worse, in arming teachers, a ghastly idea that would probably result in so much more harm than good. Or that it’s somehow a child’s responsibility to “See something. Say something.” I’m angry that in districts across the country, there are teachers who have done just that and it has resulted in nothing being done.

I’m angry that districts are more concerned with their public images than with what’s really best for students. I’m angry that in some schools, teachers are told not to write referrals for bad behavior or to pass students who haven’t done any work just so the district can tout its data.
I’m angry that district spokespeople are busy reassuring parents their children are safe, when I know they’re not. How could they be if students keep getting shot at school?

I’m angry that helicopter and bulldozer parents coddle and enable their children to the degree they don’t understand right from wrong, or that actions have consequences, or that dealing with negative emotions is a part of life, thereby creating a child crippled by fear and anxiety, with no coping skills to deal with the reality of life. And then expect schools to fix it.

I’m angry that every time I try to get people to listen to all these things, I’m told I’m being too negative, that I’m on my soapbox again, that my passion for my students is really an excuse for my own unwillingness to change. I’m angry that I’m not looked at as an authority on the reality of today’s public schools. I’m angry that the people who are in charge never invite me or any other teacher to the table.

I’m angry that in addition to the never-ending responsibilities foisted upon teachers, one of those responsibilities includes keeping students safe in conditions I have no control over and in which I’m a hero if I die while saving students. It seems a lot to ask or expect. I became a teacher, not a soldier or a police officer or a firefighter.

Mostly, though, I’m angry that a human being decided to kill other human beings.

I’m angry that students who may have changed the world will never have that opportunity.

I’m angry that school personnel had to choose to irrevocably harm their own families to try and save other families.

I’m angry that families are broken and battered, and will never feel whole again.

And I’m angry that my students have to live in this world.

Sunrise Blue Horizon Sky Sunlight Clouds Dawn
A new day dawns in the aftermath of a terrible tragedy

After yesterday’s senseless and tragic act of violence at Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, teachers all across the Sunshine State returned to work today ready to help their students and colleagues process what had happened the previous afternoon. In most of my classes throughout the day, I spoke of the active shooter training all teachers received at our school, shared some of the information we learned, but most importantly gave the students time to process these events—some students chose to ask questions and open up a dialogue, others wanted to chat with their shoulder partners, and a few remained dumbstruck by the gravity of a situation that struck so close to home.

As the day wore on, more and more students were willing to open up about their thoughts and feelings on the matter, and many of those who did opt to share had many insightful and poignant words on the matter. One student spoke of how she had lost an uncle to gun violence in a local neighborhood that has always seemed safe, and how her father, never originally a proponent of gun ownership, purchased and learned how to use a gun fearing his family’s safety after the loss of his brother. Another student spoke of the anxiety that all of these mass shootings have created, and that just last week when we had a fire drill he thought about how he and his friends would be easy targets for someone who wanted to harm them.

The most common theme that emerged from the students, though, was that something must be done to eliminate—or at least significantly reduce—gun violence here in our country and culture. Many of them debated ideas in an open and honest way, discussing how it must be a multi-pronged approach that includes better screening, raising age limits to purchase rifles of any kind, mental health resources, and most agreed that banning any and all types of assault rifles would be the prudent course of action. I sat back most of the time and listened, amazed that so much wisdom could come from high school juniors.

The lone interjection I made in much of these discussions was talking about the difference between Columbine, an event that happened nearly 20 years ago now, and what happened yesterday in Broward County. I told the students that when the Columbine shooting happened, the nation came to a standstill and was in utter shock that something like that could happen in the United States. Now, however, these mass shootings have happened so frequently, I was worried that we were becoming desensitized to them as a nation. In the last 18 months alone, we have had terrible shootings such as the Pulse nightclub, Vegas, the church in Texas, the Ft. Lauderdale airport, and now this. Though there may be more, these are the ones that immediately came to mind. All of us spoke of how much the normalization of these shootings have changed the ways in which we react to them. One student lamented the fact that as she drove her younger brother home yesterday he quipped “that’s it?” when they announced the final death toll on the radio, almost as if, in her words, “he was expecting more or that it wasn’t enough.”

At the end of each class, all the students were grateful to have had the opportunity to talk about yesterday’s events and to process their feelings. While it may have cost us a day of curriculum, a great deal of non-traditional learning transpired. It was an open, engaging dialogue to hold with the next generation, and especially interesting to hear their views, hopes, and fears for what the future may bring. We all agreed that something must be done about the frequency and scope of the gun violence that has become so rampant lately, and sooner rather than later.

Our collective hearts and minds go out to all of the victims and their families, their communities, and the rest of the people who were in any way touched by this tragedy. But today’s discussions and the ones that are surely to follow are only the beginning of the healing that is necessary the day after a senseless act of violence such as this. It will take time for all of us—especially our children—to recover from it, but we can help each other through this ordeal by lending to one another a listening ear and compassionate heart.