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Want to Help Prevent School Shootings? Let Teachers Care About Kids

Remember how in the ‘80s, we played records backward so we could “hear the voice of the devil”? Remember that shrieky cacophony? That’s the sound in my head when people say that to prevent school shootings, we need to arm teachers.

They’ve got it in reverse. Adding more threat of violence to the dynamic in today’s schools is like adding Crisco to a grease fire. To help prevent school shootings, do you know what we need to arm teachers with? The time to learn and care about the kids in their classrooms.

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After the 17 murders at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school in Parkland, Florida, alumnus Mike Watford told BuzzFeed news that shooter Nikolas Cruz often said “how tired he was of everyone picking on him and the staff doing nothing about it.” There’s implied blame here on Cruz’s teachers: You saw the bullying! Why didn’t you care enough to stop it?

As a veteran teacher who cares so much about kids that it actually drove me to leave the classroom, I have a different take.

Today’s teachers exist in a test score pressure cooker. We are literally told to care less about kids and more about data. Those who prioritize kids’ needs over their numbers are punished. Hard truth: If teachers do nothing in the face of student bullying, it’s likely because they were trained not to.

I’m not talking about some official professional development session on “How to Ignore Students’ Mental Health.” It’s not that calculated. But it does come from the top down, and the message is clear: If you want to keep your job, you’ll spend your time calculating data.

Teachers are required to spend their time on formative assessment scores. Summative assessment scores. Pre-, practice- and post-test scores. Numbers and percentages and national averages. Anything but the struggles, anxieties and fears that our flesh-and-blood students carry to class with them. Because ironing out flesh-and-blood issues isn’t going to bring test scores up. And scores equal dollars. Want proof? Take it from The Charlotte Observer: “[P]rincipals can make up to $15,000 a year in bonuses depending on how much growth their students show on state exams.” 

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Of course, rain comes from above, and you know who’s making it rain for principals of “high-growth” schools, right? Who’s creating the dynamic in which test scores are valued while mental health is ignored? Your elected officials. Education initiatives such as No Child Left Behind (which is mandated by federal law) and Race to the Top (which elected officials, including state education chiefs and governors, can opt into) require schools to show improved test scores.

An informal social media poll of my high school-age followers netted fascinating data. I asked teens for their perspective: Did most of their teachers have time to care about their personal problems? The kids in liberal Connecticut gave a resounding, “Yes, of course,” with an implied, “Duh.” 

But the kids in Missouri, Wisconsin and Virginia? Not so much: “They’re committed to my academic success, but our conversations don’t go beyond that,” was one kid’s response.

Another said, “They listen, but they don’t take action to help me when I’m being bullied.” In other words, these students feel that teachers care to a certain extent, but that the caring is limited by strict boundaries.

You could argue that it’s not a teacher’s job to support students’ mental health. And officially, you wouldn’t be wrong. But in this era of adolescent mental health epidemics — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 5 kids aged 3 to 17 have an emotional, behavioral or mental disorder — our kids need all the support we can muster. Shouldn’t those teachers who are inclined to extend emotional support be encouraged to do so? Are we not obligated to do everything in our power to help prevent school violence? In many schools, the answer appears to be no.

When I say I cared so much about kids that it drove me to leave the classroom, I mean that I watched as the teachers in the high-achieving high school where I taught divided themselves into two camps: the data-obsessed and the student-centric. Can you guess how that played out?

The data-obsessed teachers began leading professional development sessions. Getting the plum, extra-long planning periods. Being appointed to roles with bonus stipends. The student-centric teachers, meanwhile, started receiving extra lunch duty assignments. Getting critical marks on their subjective classroom observations. Being put on “action plans,” aka the death knell of the public school teacher. The former group was made of fine, committed, hardworking teachers… and so was the latter.

Over my two years teaching at that school, whenever I had a large cross section of grades and demographics — during homeroom, say, or when I covered for an absent gym teacher — I would take an informal poll: How many teachers at the school did students feel they could always talk to? Whose doors were always open? According to the students, out of a staff of 160, there were seven of us.

Today, three of that group of teachers have left the teaching profession, one commutes three hours a day to teach in another state, one took a mental health leave of absence (citing a hostile work environment) and one was put into an office role made up of 100 percent data — for what their boss called “caring too much about the kids’ welfare.” The single one of us who still soldiers on in that school today feels like a walking target.

Do that math: Of the seven of us, six are no longer in those classrooms. Are we replaceable as teachers of academic content? Probably. Are we likely to be replaceable as adults who made kids feel safe and — perhaps even more important — heard? Probably not. And as the headlines mount up with school shootings, which is the more pressing need: those lofty academic test scores or student mental health?

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American teenagers are dying for us to care about their mental health. Literally. The solution doesn’t lie in ramping up the violence, in arming teachers. But it does lie in part in ramping down the emphasis on data and enabling teachers to care.

No matter how hard we tried, we never did hear that “devil’s voice” in our backward rock records. Maybe we were listening in the wrong place and time. Maybe today, if we listen closely, we’ll hear it in our schools’ hallways, whispering that one simple word: Data. Data. Data.

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