Wheeless, an educational consultant in New Mexico, said she believes it is time to put in the public square her idea of how teachers should respond to gun violence.
She is a national board-certified teacher and taught English for 13 years in New Mexico and in Turkey. She also served as the director of teaching and learning at the private Mysa School in Bethesda, Md., and has been involved in educational research at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.
By Halley Wheeless
Two years ago, my 5-year-old daughter came home from school and started to play a new game with the neighbor. They both hid until one of them hollered, “All clear!” They called the game “lockdown.”
When I asked about it, my daughter said they had learned it at school that day, in case a bad man came with a gun. Her words sank my heart; my daughter now thought of school — a place to learn and read and count and laugh — as a place where she could be shot.
Two days ago, I had to tell my now 7-year-old that, “Yes, there was another school shooting. Don’t worry, you are safe.”
But we all know that is a lie — because next week there could well be another school shooting and then the week after that.
On an average day, 96 people die from gun violence, according to Everytown for Gun Safety. Seven of those will be children or teens. As for school shootings, there have been five so far this year during school hours that resulted in physical injury — and it’s only the middle of February.
This infuriates me as an educator. As a parent, it terrifies me to my core.
Teachers are directly and indirectly blamed for the state of U.S. education — but the irony is that all teachers are expected to give their lives for the students in their classrooms. We are expected to die for your children. And most of us would.
As a teacher, I think about this every week. As a parent, I think about it every day.
When I brush my daughter’s hair in the morning, it crosses my mind that today could be the day I am placing her in danger; or today could be the day I die because we walked through schoolhouse doors.
I wonder if her teacher will be willing to sacrifice herself for my daughter’s life. I wonder if I have it in me to bar the door to my classroom with my body and know that I will never see my daughter again. We are the adults who are supposed to protect your child at all cost — people expect this of teachers.
But the adults in this country who have the power to protect our children, en masse, are failing. With each school shooting, we have legislators decree how sad it is and how they wish things could be different, but then do nothing or actively work against those who try. We need leaders who act — not react.
If there were a virus infecting students and teachers at the rate of one school a week, if children were being hospitalized and dying, our citizens would demand change. We would demand that schools be closed until we knew how to stop death. In 2014, multiple schools closed out of fear that ebola might strike. Mandatory quarantines were set in place to maintain safety and keep the infection from spreading. We couldn’t even tell who was infectious or how fast the virus would spread, yet closing our schools and borders became a campaign issue.
But when it comes to gun control, many health-care officials say we have an epidemic — and leaders in Washington, D.C., won’t address the most realistic cure.
There is bipartisan support for closing background check loopholes, with most adults and even most members of the National Rifle Association approving of mandatory background checks for private gun sales, surveys have repeatedly shown. Whether it is requiring the same rules we have to own guns as we have for cars, or limiting the number of guns an individual can buy per month — there are things that can be done.
There are an estimated 3.2 million K-12 full-time public school teachers working today, not counting administrators and support staff, according to Education Department statistics. Together, we keep the daily rhythm of American schools running, and together we can disrupt that by demanding federal legislative change.
Detroit teachers have shown us that with a sickout, they can effectively bring attention to their unsafe working environments. It is time for all teachers, from kindergarten to college, to consider doing the same — because without addressing gun violence, no school is a safe working environment. Most importantly, when students like my daughter are taught to play lockdown, no school can be considered a safe learning environment.
Teachers, we need to show legislators that the people who enter our nation’s school doors each day are not expendable data points.
Stepping out of your classroom — to stand up for yourself and your students — could be the most powerful lesson you ever teach.