In my public elementary school, I teach more than 600 students about conflict resolution each week. I teach my students to understand the neuroscience of anger. They learn that when they get angry, their amygdala — the brain’s security guard — is triggered. The amygdala reacts without thinking in order to protect us. However, sometimes our amygdalae are triggered when we are not really in danger but rather just angry. Maybe we didn’t get the kind of cupcake we wanted; we didn’t get the part in the school play; maybe someone bumped into us in the hallway. Our amygdala can be triggered and can react in much the same way it would if we were being attacked by a bear. Our instinct is to fight.
But when we know this about our brains, then we have choices. We can stop and breathe and think about whether we are truly in danger and whether the amygdala is really the part of our brain we want to be making decisions right now.
I teach my students to use simple mindful breathing techniques to calm the amygdala so that the thinking brain can take over. I then teach them simple tools to use to resolve conflicts peacefully. I teach them these skills with a strong sense of hope.
I have a plaque in my room that says, “The future of the world is in my classroom today.”
I dream of my students growing up and making the world a safer, kinder and, yes, more peaceful place. But watching the news every night, I also feel a deep sense of futility.
After these shootings, people in power send hopes and prayers, but nothing is changing. More dead children, more dead parents, more dead loved ones, and for what? People are angry, scared, cruel, triggered and sometimes inspired to commit horrific acts. And what is our response as a society? How are we protecting our children?
Several months ago, I wrote about the insane idea of arming teachers to deal with the alarming rate of school shootings. As an elementary school teacher, I take the threat of school shootings seriously. Every day as I walk up to my school, I worry -- is today the day? Will I have to risk my life to save my students? It’s an awful way to live. But as scared as I am, I can’t imagine that having a gun myself or having my colleagues armed would make things any better.
Luckily, the fervor over that particular policy seems to have subsided a bit.
Now the answer seems to be police officers in school. Some 1.7 million students were in schools with police officers but no counselors, according to the ACLU. And more than 10 million students attended schools that had a police presence but no social workers. These same school systems that are investing in added armed security can’t seem to find the funding for desperately needed counselors, nurses, psychologists or social workers.
I am the full-time peace teacher at my public school. My job is to teach my students about their emotions, their brains, about gratitude and kindness, about empathy and how to handle difficulties. About mindfulness and conflict resolution and racism and how to be strong in the face of adversity.
At my school, these skills are considered to be so important that peace class is a required course that all of the children take from the time they are in pre-kindergarten until they move on to middle school.
I once met with a city-level administrator who heard about my work. She laughed and said, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we had peace teachers in every school rather than investing so much money in security guards?” I said that, yes, it would be amazing. But I wasn’t laughing.
Why is this funny? Why don’t we see that if we don’t give our children the tools they need to deal with their strong emotions, to work out their conflicts peacefully, to see each other as fully human, we will soon find that we are not safe anywhere. How can we let this happen? This is on us.
There isn’t much I can do about the proliferation of guns in our country -- I live in Washington, D.C. and therefore have no voting representation in Congress -- but there is something I can do every day.
I will walk into my classroom every morning. I will think, as I always do, about where I could hide the children if a shooter comes to our school. I will commit myself to the fact that I may have to give my life to save them. And I will teach them how to be peaceful.
I will try to quiet that little voice that says, “What’s the point?” I will remember that these children are our future. And our only hope.
Linda Ryden is the peace teacher at Lafayette Elementary in Washington, D.C. She has written several children’s books, including “Rosie’s Brain,” which helps children learn how to calm down when they’re angry, and “Henry Is Kind,” a book about compassion.