What Are We Asking of Teachers?

What can we learn here?

The white-knuckled grip of my hands on the wheel only tightened as the voice carried over the radio, a woman’s voice reading “A letter from a furious teacher.” Passionate, not unlike me. A teacher, not unlike me. Shattered by the voices from Parkland, Florida—not unlike me.

I chose to be a teacher knowing that on most days I would not be able to use the bathroom until 4 pm. I chose teaching knowing that I would be grading papers all weekend and working far beyond the hours of my contract…

Each word she uttered felt heavier than the last, and I felt frozen, immobilized. My foot slightly eased off the gas pedal. The immediate pit in my stomach crawled to my throat as I choked to hold back tears.

At the end of my teaching contract, it says that I will perform “other duties to be assigned.” I do not interpret these words “as bleeding to death on the floor of my classroom.” The anger that courses through my body after a school shooting in this country is accompanied by pure panic…

I’ve recently been missioned to work in a high school: to serve the institution, the community, the parents, and the children. When I visited the school, I filled out paperwork, met with departments, and shook hands with parents. But hearing this teacher’s letter, all I could think: what are they asking of me?

I look out at the gazes of the parents in front of me as we silently make a pact. “I am giving you the most precious part of me with the knowledge that you will shield my child’s body with your own when the need arises.” They say this with their eyes. I agree to this responsibility and make a silent unbreakable oath before them…

My jaw tightened, and I grit my teeth. When the letter ended, my hand instinctively reached for the radio dial. I longed for silence, not for reflection but to escape this feeling of panic.

Before my hand could silence the radio, I heard a bevy of clips from politicians responding to Parkland. Thoughts and prayers, no action. Suggestions of arming teachers in response to the violence of school shootings. My hand returned to the steering wheel…

The image hit me: me wearing a gun at a school.

I gripped the wheel harder as I try to contain my anger… The very image made my skin crawl. I rolled and shrugged my shoulders attempting to shirk it off. The tears I was so desperately trying to hold back gently rolled down my cheeks. They were not the tears of hapless desperation, but that type of crying like steam, erupting out of a pipe soon to burst.

The image: me, a teacher, being asked to carry a gun at a school.

Suddenly, something so much worse came to mind: What are they asking teachers to do? What would they be asking me to do?

The answer was so simple, so shocking, that I don’t think I could have said it aloud at the time: If you ask me to carry a gun “to prevent shootings,” you are asking something inconceivable… You are asking me to use a gun to stop a school shooting. You are asking me to shoot someone—maybe even to shoot a child.

I shook my head, changed the station, turned up the radio, tried singing along, but nothing worked. All I could think: How could such a thing be asked of me? Why would we ask such a thing of teachers?

***

I am not actually being asked to carry a gun at school, but that thought doesn’t comfort me as much as it should. I should be happy, thankful, and overjoyed that this isn’t an issue at the school where I’ll be heading in July. But, the problem is… this is an issue which exists.

As a teacher, I cannot move past it: What are we asking teachers to do? This teacher on the radio recounted the gut-wrenching anger she feels at implicitly being asked to be a hero as she teaches. The unstated expectation that she would dive in front of bullets for her students:

How dare you make me choose between saving children or making my own children motherless. How dare you make me into a hero when I just want to teach.

I’ve been missioned to teach English, but I cannot help but think what else will be asked of me. In fear, I wonder if I’ll be asked to be a hero. In my nightmares, I imagine teachers having to kill a child because they are expected to stop the violence.

And when I open my eyes, I find myself struck by the horror that we as a country are not thinking about what we are truly asking of teachers.

I hope to God that I am never asked to be a hero, but I hope that I can be part of a heroic conversation, a conversation which leads us deeper and challenges us. I hope that my students will walk out of my courses dissatisfied with the brokenness of the world, but hopeful in their ability to change the dialogue and the world itself.

It’s not the type of heroic that the media glorifies after these too-frequent eruptions of violence, or the type of heroic which the letter rages against, but at this moment it’s all the heroic I have. It’s all you can ask of this teacher.

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The cover image, from Flickr user Melinda Shelton, can be found here.

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