Please Don’t Arm the Teachers

 Her name was Mary Thorson. Her pictures show curly brown hair, light brown eyes, a wide smile, and a button nose. Her bronzed complexion hints of African-American ancestry. Mary stepped out in front of a semi-truck. This 32-year-old teacher who taught in Ford Heights, Illinois, left behind a six-page suicide note, mostly about her job. While looking up her half-remembered story, I stumbled upon a Chicago English teacher, Joseph Hillebrand, who had stepped in front of a Metra train.

Mary had served honorably for eight years in the Army Reserves, but her position in a small, impoverished school district proved so stressful that she chose suicide by semi on a major Illinois expressway. Reading between the lines, her stress seemed mostly to be coming from problems with administration, and other teachers reported administrative bullying. Mary had already been suspended once from her position after allegedly striking a student,  a gesture she called a “playful tap”, and she would be suspended again the week before her death for cursing at a student, according to a coworker. 

Yet Mary was a caring teacher. In a district where more than 98% of students were classified as low income, Mary used her own money to buy school supplies and even warm clothing for students. A fellow physical education teacher said her students loved her and “gravitated” toward her.*

Toxic work environments in education have become big news in the recent past. I remember the Brooklyn teacher who faked a fall down her school’s stairs to avoid a poor performance review. I have held crying colleagues devastated by those reviews, especially after Illinois, like other states, decided to rely on the Charlotte Danielson rubric to judge teachers. Suddenly, many points were in play, and performance was boiled down to numbers, many of them made up, since no one can assess twenty-two areas of expertise by watching one person for an hour or less.

Mary Thorson was expected to go home for the holidays on the night of Thanksgiving, Nov. 24, 2011. She never made it. Instead, the police showed up with the saddest news any parent can receive. I am sure there have been no happy Thanksgivings since that tragic day.

Eduhonesty: What if Mary had been carrying a gun? She would have been an extremely plausible teacher to arm with her eight years of honorable military service. That semi-truck became a weapon of opportunity. What might she have done with a gun instead?

I fell in my school parking lot years ago. I still remember a coworker’s loud, plaintive shriek, as she came over to help me up: “Why couldn’t it have been me?!!??” If she had fallen, I am sure her teaching years would have ended in that parking lot that day. She was nearing the edge, the throw-yourself-down-the-stairs edge. I just got up and dusted myself off, a lucky fall onto the ice in my long, thick, down coat.

Here’s my take on the arm-the-teachers plan. If we do, I believe one of those teachers tempted to throw herself down the stairs will shoot her Principal instead. Or she will shoot the students in her afternoon English class, the ones who made fun of her when she tried to introduce the new project that she had cut sleep to prepare the night before.

According to Fast Facts from, in 2015 the U.S. had over 3 million public school teachers. Pick any group of 3 million people and you will find a number who are overdue for mental healthcare, a number who are taking the wrong meds, too many meds or none of the meds they have been prescribed. Even men and women who have always shown solid mental health unravel sometimes, unable to manage after a family death or an unexpected affair and divorce. Add to that the fact that teaching can be an extremely high-stress job, especially in poor and urban districts trying to hit unrealistic test-score targets. Let’s throw in the factoid that around one-half of public school teachers quit within the first five years, unable or unwilling to do a job for which they may still owe many thousands of dollars of student loans. That figure gets bandied about regularly, although I am not sure it’s up-to-date. The number may be higher today.

If even a fraction of fraction of 1% of those more than 3 million teachers lose their temper while armed… The body count will rise swiftly. And all those nifty new locks we keep installing in schools across the nation? Those locks will be useless.

Some of the sanest people I know have ended up seeking out mental health care in times of crisis. Others simply crumbled. They crawled into bed and came out months later, when they came out at all. Being a teacher in no way guarantees mental health. Nothing guarantees mental health.

If we arm our teachers, we will be meeting a new enemy — and that enemy will be us.

P.S. This post ignores one other aspect of arming teachers that requires at least a mention. That football player who once pushed me out of a doorway because he was bigger, stronger and determined not to let me slow him down? What if he had decided to go for my (then-nonexistent) gun instead? As we add guns, we add to the risk that students will gain access to these guns, accidentally or deliberately.









Cheating the Security

I watched the President and Secretary of Education as parents and children of gun violence pled for saner laws and limits on access to firearms. Where are those laws? The current situation would be utterly absurd — if it were not heartbreaking. I went into an elementary school where I sometimes substitute last week and was asked to put my car keys in a box until I returned my substitute I.D. at day’s end. I am familiar with this procedure from other schools; subs do sometimes walk off with those I.D.s which may have room keys and even keys that open the school. It’s easy to forget about the “necklace” that is a school’s lanyard.

But this request was new. Shortly before the Florida shooting, a small elementary school in a quiet community had added a fancy lock to the interior office door of the school. I could only get in or out of the school office via the already-secured front door or by scanning a key in the back of the offices. I learned how to use my new key.

Eduhonesty: My problem is not security. My problem is I think I may have bypassed that security the last four out of five times I went into a school. I sometimes wince now as people let me past that security, and I may start gently reminding the helpful that today’s security exists for a reason. So many people obligingly hold open doors for me, no doubt because I look like a teacher with my Yoda bag bulging with papers. Sometimes I carry an owl or Avengers bag. I reek late middle-aged teacher and I always have sensible, flat shoes and glasses. But who knows what’s in my many stuffed bags?

Profiling works for me. People let me into schools all the time, not always through the front door. Students let me in. Teachers and other adults let me in. Especially on freezing winter days, people take compassion on me as I trek through parking lots and around schools. Not all of these helpful folks have seen me before.

Readers, the next time you see that woman with her Yoda bag? Please, make her follow procedures. The stakes have become too high to take chances, even the tiniest of chances.

My next post will be about arming teachers.

Why the DACA Kids Must Become a Priority

Drop-out numbers provide more evidence for the U.S. achievement gap when broken down, and hidden in those numbers is a Dreamer fact that seems to escape many of our nation’s leaders. Our schools are teaching Dreamer children, the sons and daughters of undocumented workers facing an uncertain future. These children, like all children, only bring so much hope and resilience into the classroom. The amounts vary. Some kids can ignore the reality of their daily lives almost completely while happily planning to be part of the first Martian colony. Others take more prosaic views of their lives, however, and believe what older siblings and adults tell them.

“You can’t be a nurse. You don’t have a social,” big brother says. (Short for social security number.)

“You can’t be a teacher. They are going to make us go back to Guatemala anyway,” big sister says.

That “social” is an especially big deal. Without that magic number, many occupations are effectively closed to Dreamer children. Factory or yardwork jobs are possible, but any position that requires a background check is pretty much off-limits. Almost all college loans require that social, too, although a number of colleges and universities are running their own loan programs.

Dreamer children easily lose hope, and often at a young age. I have watched many slip away from me in middle school, using their Dreamer status as a reason and sometimes an excuse for the studying that never happens and work that never gets turned in. Giving adolescents an excuse not to work will always be a loser. Giving them no reason to dream is criminal.

The Hispanic dropout rate always comes in highest when we look at government charts, despite the fact that many of these children come from intact families with a solid work ethic. Mom and dad may be working three or four jobs between the two of them. For the year 2015, the U.S. government estimates 4.6% of whites dropped out of high school, 6.5% of blacks, and 9.2% of Hispanics.*

We might pause to congratulate ourselves that the gap between whites and African-Americans stood at only 1.9 percentage points in 2015, down from 6.2 percent points in 2000. But if we want to see a similar narrowing of the gap between our Nonhispanic White and Hispanic students, we will have to address the challenge of those Dreamer children, the ones who do not see the point in finishing high school because they don’t believe 1) that they can afford college and 2) that college will allow them to realize the dreams they once had, before a realistic friend or family member explained how that “social” number worked.

* See also

Data Leading Us Astray

We use cooperative learning to group students so that stronger students can teach weaker students when the differentiating teacher is busy scaffolding elsewhere in the room.  If we have the resources (teachers often spend their own money or try for crowdfunding options), we split into different groups with different books – when allowed. Administrative demands for grade-wide, comparable data may force the use of one book and one set of materials so that all tests and quizzes throughout a grade can be measured against each other. Data, data, data.

Our children are not data. They are children. Considering the costs of gathering data, we should be asking if the informational benefits received warrant the extra effort and lost time that result from all those spreadsheets. What was wrong with report cards, the data of the past?

Among other considerations, let’s be clear: I don’t need 25 spreadsheets to tell me that “Sadie” can’t read. I figured that out the first time I sat down beside her and listened to her try to read.

Raising the Bar for Kids Who Never Got Over the First Bar

That new, tougher curriculum resulting from those new Common Core standards? It’s sucking up existing teaching hours like a raging river adding water to a flood. Meetings, professional developments, retooled lesson plans, lost students, unfamiliar books and software… Time bleeds away as teachers take this latest shift in focus and make it work.

Here is what I observed while teaching that curriculum: Remediation is getting sacrificed to idealistic learning targets, while the students at the bottom of the learning curve only become more confused. Making existing content more demanding without offering adequate time and resources to teach missed material from earlier years means students who only understood a fraction of what was coming at them daily now understand an even smaller fraction than before.

Eduhonesty: Let’s step outside the above verbiage. Kids don’t grasp why they suddenly understand much less of the curriculum than they did the previous year. They just know they fell from the upper-middle of the state standardized test to the lower-middle a few years ago, in one deep, ugly, PARCC or Smarter Balanced plunge, and somehow they cannot get off the bottom.

In concrete terms, we are making whole groups of capable young people feel dumber than rocks.