Article: Teachers Packing Heat

I hope that throughout my life, my career, I have been a friend to those I’ve come in contact with. My friend and I were talking last night about those of us in “middle-age” who are trying to assimilate into the world of today with its technology and fast-moving pace. Some of us come kicking and screaming, others come ready to embrace all new challenges. Regardless of where you are, it is a fact of life that we will either move with the times or we are destined to be left behind with the other relics.
These times are different, very different. I was reading an article in the Omaha World Herald recently about legislation that is being proposed in the Nebraska government that would allow teachers and administrators to carry guns to school. This is in relation to a shooting that happened at an Omaha suburb high school a couple of weeks ago, where the school’s principal and assistant principal were shot and one of them died. So this is the answer? Bring MORE guns into the picture? Turn MORE people loose with guns?

As a teacher I was one of only a few in my school who looked beyond the behavior to try to understand the reason behind the behavior. It’s much easier to turn your back and label the student a problem. I don’t believe that children are just born being bad or good. Certainly emotional intelligence plays a large part in the behaviors we see in each other, but that life-long question, nature or nurture, always rears its ugly head. Can we take a young man (in this Omaha case) and “fix” him? Can we provide a 17 year old boy with the resources he needs to undo whatever has caused him to make these choices? What about the young man in Arizona? Is there a way that he could have been helped? I’m afraid we’ll never know.

But I have to believe that allowing more guns into the picture only continues to “muddy the waters.” As in the Omaha case, a security guard was close by. Had he had a gun, would it have mattered? Would these people have gone unhurt? The answer, in this case, is no, according to those present. Would it have made a difference in Arizona if the congresswoman had had a gun with her or if her staff members carried guns? Would it have made a difference to the people who were hurt and those who died? What lesson would that have taught that 9 year old girl? Those with the biggest guns win? Those with the most guns win?
What message does this send the children and youth? Are we assuming that teachers and administrators are emotionally sound to carry and use a weapon? Will they all be required to take some kind of training in the “proper use of a gun in a school setting? That would be an interesting inservice experience!

I’d like to explore alternatives to teachers and administrators carrying guns. As an educator who has worked in the early childhood educational field for most of my 35 years of service, I KNOW that if we can reach those little people when their brains are still in the formative stage, we can make huge differences in their lives and the lives of those around them. If we can instill in them a love of learning, instead of resentment and despair which so many of our young people seem to take on as their best learned lessons then, maybe, our teachers don’t have to carry guns.

This life is the only one we’ve got. Shouldn’t we be trying to help each other through it? Wouldn’t it be better if, instead of allowing more guns, we took a little time to LISTEN to each other? Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand, then be understood.”

The start in life that a child has, good, bad or indifferent, lays the foundation for the rest of his/her life. It’s documented. It’s proven. But there is something much more valuable to instill in our young people: a love and respect of themselves. How do we go about doing that? It sounds simple, right? We all love our children to distraction. We tell them how wonderful they are. We teach them about the world and their place in it. We do the absolute best we know how to do. And yet, if that’s true, how do we end up with young men like those mentioned above? How do we “create” people so disenfranchised that they believe the only way to respond to this world is to take a gun and hurt other people and themselves?

This subject of parenting is a mammoth topic. I’ve spent the better part of the last 35 years working with parents, teaching parents, providing resources for teachers and parents in “best practices” for all of us who want to provide the best for our children. Let me ask a question here, “Do you know what emotional intelligence is?” OK, let me ask you two questions, “Do you understand the importance of emotional intelligence?

Let me explain. Emotional intelligence is (according to wikipedia) “the ability, capacity or skill to control the emotions of oneself, of others, and of groups.” OK. In all my years of college, in preparation to become a teacher, I don’t remember that subject being taught. If it’s so important, and I would think that controlling one’s emotions would be pretty important, why didn’t anybody ever mention this before? Now I understand that I went to college a long time ago (ask my son, he’ll be happy to tell you just how long ago). I know that things have changed. But were all the changes for good? Maybe, and this is just a thought, maybe it’s because emotional intelligence was something that we learned from those around us and by that I don’t mean just our parents. I knew when I left the house in the morning that no matter what happened to me that day at school, my parents were probably going to know about it BEFORE I ever got home to tell them. There was a network of people in my community all working for my best interests: other parents, my friends who weren’t afraid to tell my parents if they thought I was in trouble, my teachers, my friend’s parents, my grandparents, neighbors. Believe me, my parents and their cohorts made certain that I knew how to control my emotions, while understanding that kids will be kids and the parent’s involvement throughout the process was crucial.

A few questions to ponder: do those “networks” still work? Do we even have these networks anymore? Are we willing to participate in our own network?

YOU can make a difference. Yes, YOU! But, we say, isn’t that the parents’ job? It’s not my business! I would argue that children are everybody’s business. They are our future, whether they live in your house, the neighbor’s house, or across the globe. They are our future. You can make a difference. Let me explain with the help of “Powerful Interactions, “ an article by Amy Laura Dombro, Judy R. Jablon, and Charlotte Stetson which appears in its entirety in YC (Young Children), published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, January 2011. The article was written for teachers, but I believe it applies to us all:

“Your interactions with children affect how they feel about themselves and how they learn. Who you are as a parent, a teacher, a friend, whatever—your emotional intelligence—shapes your decisions about what you say and do as you interact with children. Your smile and sense of humor, the sound of your voice, the words you choose, the interests you share, and your curiosity are like that of no one else. Your powerful interactions with children play an important role in their emotional well-being and learning.

These powerful interactions begin with you. What can you do?

• Be yourself. Young children know when you are being genuine and when you are not.

• Fuel yourself. Set priorities. Be physically comfortable. Add personal touches (pictures, poems, music, a quote). Remember to laugh. Keep your energy tank fueled.

• Look for clues. Children will give you clues about how you are doing. Watch and be aware of yourself. Do you REALLY listen?

During the course of your busy day allow yourself a little time to be curious, to slow down, and to enjoy your interactions with children. Your powerful interactions with children make a difference for them now and in the future.”

I would encourage you to read the article in full. It reminded me, as I was reading it, that teachers are important in every child’s life, but just as important are all the other people in their life. We all “teach” a young person their value or worth in this world. Maybe that “network” needs to be re-visited so that the children around us KNOW, in their hearts and minds, just how valuable they are to us all. I’m not sure that we have the power to save the young men we talked about and those like them, but maybe we can prevent more.

I think this conversation is timely and valid. I think it’s a conversation that needs to continue but also I think that action needs to be taken. It’s one thing to sit here and talk about it “amongst ourselves.” It’s something else to get up and do something about it. It does no good to sit here and lament the situation as hopeless and give up. Talking about it is the first step. What actions are you willing and ready to take? That’s the next step.

Let me share a piece of my history with you. I was a fourth grade teacher in my hometown, a small community in Kansas. I had been teaching, pretty successfully, for five years. It’s August and my classroom is ready to receive my new students, the first day is here and ten minutes before the bell rings to allow the children to come to their new classroom, I am called to the office. There’s a problem with a student. Now, I have always been the kind of teacher who didn’t want to know anything about her new kiddos until I, myself, met them. Then if there were concerns or questions, I would do some “research.”

So here we are, the new year hasn’t even officially begun yet, and I get to meet one of my newest kiddos….in the principals’ office….for starting a fight….at the front door….with the aide standing right there. Hmmm. Welcome to the new year!

Tony (not his real name), I learned from the principal, was not new to finding himself in trouble. In fact, he was a “regular” in the principal’s office. Ever determined to get the year off to a positive start, I talked with Tony about my expectations of him as we walked down the hall to our classroom. We were fortunate that “the peace” lasted for another week, when I got a call, during my lunch time, that yet another fight was taking place in the lunchroom. Both young men involved were removed from the lunchroom and escorted to my classroom. There was absolute silence from both parties, when I asked what had caused this particular incident. So, I did what all good teachers do…I separated them in an attempt to “ferret out” the truth. John (again, not his real name) was never in trouble. In fact, I had trouble just getting him to talk to me, or anybody; a fist fight?

OK. So John wouldn’t tell me what happened. I’d try Tony. I pulled him out into the hallway with me and I asked him to tell me his version. His reaction was to scream at me, “Just go ahead and punish me. You will anyway. It doesn’t matter what happened. I always get in trouble. So just tell me what my punishment is and let’s get on with it.” Well, not the answer I was hoping for, but never-the-less enlightening! I assured Tony that I wasn’t handing out any punishment until I knew the circumstances of the trouble. I was going to talk to him and then I would talk to John again until I got some answers. Then, and only then, would I decide if and what the punishment would be. I’ll NEVER forget what happened next.

That young man began to sob uncontrollably. He was trying to tell me things that I couldn’t begin to understand. I took him into a little room across the hall and we sat until he could calm himself enough to talk to me. Finally he told me that John had said some things to him that “really made me mad.” I assured him that there were very few things, if any, that should result in beating someone with your fists. Then he told me what was said.

Tony’s mother had left him, his older brother, and his infant sister five years before. They had had no contact with her over those five years, until a week before school started this year. She was back. She wanted to take his little sister with her when she left. Tony had always told his classmates and friends that his mother was dead. Now, in this small town, people knew that she was here. John had said some hateful things about him and his mother sitting at the lunchroom table and Tony reacted in the only way he could at that point in time, with his fists. When I got John’s version of the story, it was identical. Was there punishment? Both boys had to stay after school and do chores with me. After their week was over, Tony voluntarily stayed most days to help me, the janitor, whomever he could help.

Why was this important? Little by little, others began to see a change in Tony. By the end of the first quarter, other school personnel were coming to me, asking what I had done. He was a different young man. Where before he would slam the door in an adult’s face and laugh, he held the door for the school secretary and helped her carry in her load. Even the principal stopped by to see what was going on with Tony. He couldn’t get over the change. What had I done? Nothing really. I quit talking and just listened. I made my expectations clear to him and he knew that I would be fair. When he was wrong, he knew there would be consequences. Tony had the best year of school he’d ever had; his work, not mine. Was he an A student? No, but he did his best on all of his work. He was pleasant to be around and he enjoyed coming to school.

The end of the school year was near and I had decided not to return to the school the next year. I felt it was time for a change and I announced to my students my decision. Within the week, I was called to the office. Tony had been in a fight. The first fight he’d had since the beginning of school. When I asked him about it, his response was angry, belligerent and he said, “What do you care? You’re leaving me just like everyone else!” Light bulb moment!! How could I assure this young man that my caring for him wasn’t going to end simply because I was not in the building and, at the same time, encourage him to step out, not needing me, to continue with the positive choices he’d been making? I made it very clear to him that I NEVER forgot my students; that I only lived 35 miles away and that my parents lived in his hometown. (He knew where their house was). I would be back. I would be checking on him.

Did he stop the negative behavior? Mostly. The last few weeks of school were not his best, but they weren’t his worst either. On the last day of school, as I was saying my final farewell to his classmates, Tony slipped out the door without a goodbye. I have to admit I was a little saddened that there had been no hug, no high five, no handshake, but I understood that it was just not possible for him.

As I was packing boxes in my room a little while later, I noticed someone crawling down the sidewalk toward my car. As I looked closer, I could see that it was Tony, but what was he doing? He was obviously concerned that no one saw him, so I hid behind a pillar and watched. He got into my car, did something, closed the door and ran away. I couldn’t wait to get out there!

In my car seat was a tiny little stuffed Christmas elf with a tiny little note taped on it. “I love you, and I know you love me.”

Did I change Tony’s life forever? I don’t know. As happens with people he grew up, I moved away, we lost touch. But I’d like to think that maybe his life was a little better because of our time together. I certainly hope that his life has been good and that he has found love, joy, and peace for himself. I know that he had a profound effect on me. I’ve never forgotten him. I never will.

Could he have become one of those disenfranchised young men? Quite possibly. Did I, myself, make the difference? Absolutely not! All of us in that school changed the way we interacted with him. It’s true, I started the chain of events and his actions continued the chain, but everyone in that building added positive links to it, his network, his life. Were there enough positive links to make the difference? I sure hope so. But I know this, it is twenty-two years later and he still touches my heart as I write this. He taught me that it doesn’t take much to make a big difference in a child’s life. Every one of us has a little time to spare. Every one of us can listen for a moment. Every one of us can make a difference.