Arming Teachers, Dismantling Education
“[G]ood teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher. In every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my selfhood — and am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning.”
- Parker J. Palmer
As an educator, I have been feeling all the feels these last few weeks. On one hand, I have been feeling the sadness and anger that most of our nation has felt after the attack at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School; on the other hand, I have been feeling extreme pride in my profession as I watch the young students of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas grow into their roles as young activists. These students represent the essence of what our job is as educators: to help young people find and use their voices to transform their worlds. However, amongst all of this is a debate that seems never ending–the question of how to best protect our students in our schools. As most news organizations have pointed out, this debate comes and goes after every major shooting. But for me, this time around feels a little different because of one idea being touted by our highest leader.
President Trump, along with the NRA and all of their many affiliates, want to arm our teachers. They qualify their solution in a similar way to how President Trump does in this tweet:
For many, arming teachers seems like an easy compromise. The teachers who want to carry can, and those who don’t want to carry won’t. Unfortunately, what’s missing in the midst of this discussion is the reality of the teaching profession in our country. In fact, this position isn’t just ill-informed for reasons pointed out by students like Alexis Tracton, but is systematically dangerous to education as a whole.
In the state of Michigan, there are 94,626 primary and secondary educators.¹ Every year, approximately 10% leave the profession; that’s 9,463 educators leaving each year.² Estimates project that this rate of turnover in education costs the state up to $59 million due to hiring and training costs.³ We have a burnout crisis in education that results in drastic turnover rates, and a push towards arming teachers will only exacerbate the problem.
I have the great honor of working with educators from various districts, and one of the primary observations I have made is that educators are tired but trying. They love their students and the challenges of teaching, but they don’t feel that they have the capacity to take on anything else. Research from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Penn State University found that teachers are leaving due to four primary reasons: culture and climate of the school organization and leadership; job demands that include high-stakes testing and parental and student behavior; lack of work resources; and their own social and emotional competence to handle the stress.⁴ Stress that includes protecting their students from shooters.
A few years ago, I helped to lead an interim program at the school where I was teaching. For one week, students were allowed to take courses on topics that are not usually incorporated into the classic school schedule. In order to accommodate the sixty different courses, we invited in experts from a variety of fields to teach. One of those experts helped lead a product design and innovation business; his class was focused on introducing students to the design process. He had a class size of approximately 15 students. At the end of the experience, I asked him how his week went, and he said, “Well, I learned a lesson. Teaching is the hardest thing I have ever done.”
Now, I’m not going to diminish his experience. For sure, his one-week teaching job was difficult because he did not have time to really build rapport with the students. But, his words ring in my ears every so often: “Teaching is the hardest thing I have ever done.” Teaching is hard. And, it takes a toll on educators.
A large percentage of our educators experience mental health issues. In fact, a recent survey stated that, “58% [of educators] said their mental health was ‘not good’ for seven or more of the previous 30 days.”⁵ The symptoms educators complain of are anxiety, depression, and difficulty sleeping. The same survey pointed out that educators found their work stressful 61% of the time. Meaning in an 8 hour day, a teacher experiences high amounts of stress during almost 5 of those hours. If you multiply this by the typical 180 day school calendar, a teacher is experiencing 900 hours of high stress every school year.
Do we, then, really think that arming even a small portion of our educators will be helpful? Behavioral therapy explains it like this, “A negative event plus an equal or greater negative behavioral response leads to a negative natural and logical consequence.”⁶ In other words, fighting gun violence with more guns is bound to lead to more negative results, especially on the emotional health and well-being of our educators.
When we have discussions about guns and keeping students and staff safe, we are bound to have people who will disagree on how to solve the issue, and I will be the first to admit that there are probably some educators out there who want to be armed or are already armed. But on a national level, this solution will only lead to greater stress, higher levels of emotional instability, and increased burnout amongst educators. We cannot afford for that to be the case because the greatest defense against those who become shooters is a high quality education. After all, it is our teachers who day in and day out are arming our students with the knowledge, resiliency, and hope that they need to be the change agents of our future.
“Annual Education Report.” MI School Data, Michigan Department of Education, 2017, www.mischooldata.org/NewAer3/CombinedReport2.aspx?Common_Locations=1-A%2C0%2C0%2C0~2-A%2C0%2C0%2C0&Common_SchoolYear=15&Common_LocationIncludeComparison=False&Portal_InquiryDisplayType=Snapshot#TeacherQuality.
“Understanding Teacher Shortages.” Learning Policy Institute, Learning Policy Institute, 2018, learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/understanding-teacher-shortages-interactive
On the Path to Equity: Improving the Effectiveness of Beginning Teachers. Alliance for Excellent Education, 2014, On the Path to Equity: Improving the Effectiveness of Beginning Teachers, all4ed.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/PathToEquity.pdf.
Greenberg, M. T., Brown J. L., Abenavoli, R.M. (2016). “Teacher Stress and Health Effects on Teachers, Students, and Schools.” Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, Pennsylvania State University.
2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey. American Federation of Teachers, 2017, 2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey, www.aft.org/sites/default/files/2017_eqwl_survey_web.pdf.
Uche, Ugo. “Effective Behavioral Responses to Threats (Real or Perceived).” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 11 Jan. 2011, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/promoting-empathy-your-teen/201101/effective-behavioral-responses-threats-real-or-perceived.