Yesterday, as hundreds of thousands marched upon Capitol Hill demanding safer classrooms and control on gun laws; something looked and felt different during March for Our Lives. No other other anti-gun rally has attracted so much attention, support and media coverage in a very long time¹. Whether you agree with tighter gun restrictions, national legislation or not, one thing is for sure: teachers should not be allowed guns or any other weapons at school. Let’s talk about some reasons why.
First I would like to say I’m not a U.S citizen and while I have my opinions, I’m not going to tell other American citizens what kind of gun control they should have in their country. I’d also like to say I am a teacher. I teach English to students from junior elementary kids to sixty-five-year-old adults. Mums and Dads send their children to my classroom with the implicit trust that I will keep their children safe. Adults come to my classroom expecting a productive and safe environment to explore and learn a language. I’m sure I can speak for most teachers when I say- these are not responsibilities I take lightly.
Secondly, whether we believe it or not, we are all some way affected by the horrific school shootings in America over the past few years and outcomes of American gun regulation either directly or indirectly. I wrote a piece back in January as to how there are no ‘other people’ problems. Eventually, they all come back to us just like they do in “First They Came…” by Martin Niemöller. While only American citizens are responsible for and can change this particular issue, we can still have a discussion and not add to the issue at hand.
Take a moment to humour me and try a thought experiment. Picture Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on that horrific day in February. A very sick person is on campus with a gun, ready to kill. He fires a few shots to grab people’s attention. Teachers are not quite sure what’s going on if it’s anything at all. Maybe a car backfired. Perhaps this person goes on to murder one or two innocent people. By the time it’s clear there is a gunman in the school, a teacher, who has a gun locked in one of their drawers, somehow manages to get hold of it and aim as someone walks into their classroom and manages to shoot that person before any students are hurt. What if it was the gunman? What if it was a student running into a classroom for safety?
If it was the gunman, the students would all have seen their teacher take someone’s life, even if it was to protect them. Students become very conscious of the gun’s presence in class even if it’s still locked away in the drawer and they have to live with the knowledge and image someone died in their classroom. Perhaps the seventeen lives lost could have been saved because a teacher had a gun, perhaps not. What the students have learnt in that situation is to solve problems first with violence and not with questions and dialogue. This only leads to a repetition of the same actions instead of breaking the viscous cycle.
If it was a student, the students have seen their teacher take an innocent young person’s life. Despite understanding the confusion, that the teacher was trying to protect them and accidents happen, students would never feel the same again. Not to mention the guilt, sickness and shame the teacher has to carry around for the rest of their lives. The students would probably never quite feel secure or at ease with any teacher ever again. Lives are changed forever.
Both scenarios lead to a situation where it’s almost impossible to create a constructive, secure learning environment after the fact, despite potentially saving more children’s lives. Both scenarios are awful and preventable by not having weapons in schools in the first place.
Guns in Classrooms Won’t Change the Outcome
Guns have no place in a classroom, even on a good day. Just like knives, drugs and alcohol do not have a place in the classroom. A gun locked away would be difficult to get fast and meaningful access to in the moments they were truly needed. With hormones and teenagers around, there’s no way a gun and ammonition can be left without being locked up- precisely because school shootings happen without there being guns in schools in the first place.
Weapons Don’t Create an Effective Learning Environment
Even if a teacher carries the gun on their person, seeing a real-life weapon while you are trying to learn can be distracting, despite knowing it’ll never be fired, or fire blanks. I remember teaching in army barracks last year. Although I eventually got used to the sight of guns, I was always hyper-aware when soldiers were marching in front of the windows, walking by the door or when I heard loud noises. It was enough to distract me as an adult, despite being surrounded by fully trained, armed professionals. Heck, even a threat of a tally chart on the board slowly giving more or less homework based on behaviour can be distracting sometimes (just ask my seventh graders).
Teachers run on a tight schedule, are overworked and underpaid. It’s not unreasonable to think a teacher might leave a key or the paper with a code somewhere. There may be a case of misreading a situation, for example, trying to break up fights where a teacher has been told a weapon is being used by a student. Even armed professionals can make these mistakes sometimes. The ‘just incase’ mentality isn’t worth a student’s life.
Classrooms Must be a Safe Place
Whether a student’s life is perfectly normal, thank you very much, or is being picked on in the lunch room or is filled with violence and abuse at home, the classroom must be a place where none of the above exists and students are able to just learn. A classroom is also a place where students are able to express themselves, learn about the world and be pushed towards who they are and their contribution to a whole, as well as a break from everything else in their life. There are clearly defined boundaries and reasonable consequences for breaking rules in class. The teacher is someone holding others accountable for their behaviour so students don’t have to worry. In my opinion, challenging students to be and do better is only possible when students feel safe, secure and they can make mistakes. We’re not wrapping them in cotton wool, we’re giving them the space to fight with credibility and evidence, to respect others and to try again. The world is scary and our job as a teacher is to give them the tools to deal with it.
There are Other Ways
It’s the 21st century. We have metal detectors, tasers, CCTV, hidden buttons that immediately access the local police. We have electric gates, bulletproof glass and much more. Investing in mental health services (not just addiction) and being more selective as to who has weapons and how we store them are much healthier and effective methods of controlling gun crime.
I avoided writing this piece for a while because I thought it wasn’t my problem or it didn’t affect me. I was wrong, it does affect me. I have friends who have amazing, bright children in American schools, friends who go to college in America, some of my students are currently studying in America for a semester and I have friends who work in American schools. Whatever America decides to do with gun control or safety in schools does effect me over in Europe because I would be devastated if anything happened to someone I know and love, even more than I am when I hear the news of another school shooting.
Even if you don’t have a personal connection to America, the prevalence of social media in all its great and destructive ways shows young people how other people solve problems, good or bad. If the wrong story reaches the wrong person in the wrong way it’s not a huge leap to see how they might think it’s the right way to respond. We only need to look at some of the reactions towards innocent Muslims by non-Muslims because of sheer fear of terrorism to see how things can escalate quickly. While we can all hope for a positive, more forward-thinking bipartisan result out of Parkland, Florida and events of its kind, no life lost was worth the sacrifice. It should never have happened in the first place.
Seeing so many young faces in the crowd at Capitol Hill reminded me of marching myself with my fellow students in unison over rising university fees in the London. I am proud of how a lot of young people showed great leadership and organisation to get others to listen to them, help them and stand with them. I am proud of how young people showed maturity by using their physical presence and their voices instead of violence and weapons to be heard. This is what comes from good, dare I say, great teaching: engaged, motivated and thoughtful young people. These young people turn into engaged, motivated, thoughtful and intelligent adults and the world could definitely use more of those.
What are your thoughts on the idea of guns in schools? Write in the comments below what you think would be the most effective solution.
Over and Out
1. Only hundreds of people turned out to an anti NRA rally by the people of the Women’s March July 2017.