A Fairfax County, Va., officer stood armed with his service pistol as he patrolled the hallways at West Springfield High School. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Most teachers have long been loathe to speak out on controversial topics. Some do not want to but others who do are afraid of antagonizing students, parents and administrators and literally, putting their jobs on the line.

In recent years, we have seen more speak out, first over the effect that over-testing was having on students as well as the teaching profession, and now, about safe schools.

Student survivors of the Feb. 14 shootings at a Florida high school, which left 17 people dead, have sparked a movement for safe schools that teachers are now joining. In the following open letter, a group of National Teachers of the Year — the highest award given to teachers — urges colleagues to come out of their comfort zone to advocate.

Here is the letter:

To Our Noble Colleagues,

“We can transform our nation’s priorities if we truly believe we can. Don’t ever give up insisting that children be protected first whatever the political or economic weather.”
-Marian Wright Edelman

Our schools have been the targets of violent attacks, but we are not powerless.

The regularity with which school shootings occur brings with it the threat to normalize such unconscionable, evil acts. We cannot allow this dystopian nightmare of murdered children in our schools to become expectation. We cannot give in to despair.

Instead, we can do what teachers have always done: advocate on behalf of our students. Our efforts — yours, your colleagues’, your students’, your community’s — to engage this issue with determination and dedication to solutions will bring change.

Anchor yourself in faith that a day will come when our country’s children will no longer have to attend school in fear, because we chose to become involved.

Engaging won’t be easy. But it is necessary. Our students need and deserve our voice.

As teachers, we are exceptional leaders in our classrooms. Leading outside of those walls can be less comfortable, but whether you believe it or not, you’re already equipped for this work. You do it everyday when you ask a question, when you plan for someone else’s learning, when you listen, when you nudge, when you advocate. Be brave: you are ready.

True courage comes with the discomfort of being vulnerable. It may be interpersonal discomfort with a difficult conversation, or it might be the unfamiliar cloak of activism. We urge all teachers to enter into this discomfort.

There is no one “right way” to engage. There are many entry points:

Begin conversations, even the difficult ones. This might mean making this an issue of face-to-face conversation in your faculty room or classroom, or engaging with someone you know will differ from you. It might mean talking to school administrators about ways to make your school safer. Sometimes change comes one difficult conversation at a time. Difficult Conversations is a good text to help you find the right words. “It is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.” – Audre Lorde

Support students. Student activists have been central to many social justice movements in this country’s history and will be for this one too. There is a walkout planned for 17 minutes on March 14th and the “March for Our Lives” protest on March 24th. Consider how you can support students in these peaceful demonstrations, how you can proactively advocate for their support from other adults in your school, and how you can support other student-led efforts to organize. Remember that student activists will need our ongoing support and encouragement in the weeks and months after these high-profile events, as well.

Rally others. This challenge cannot and will not be solved by teachers alone. Bring your experiences and your students’ stories to your neighbors and friends and urge them to get involved, as well.

Contact lawmakers. Laws will change to make students safer and healthier only if we can convince lawmakers of the necessity. Contact your representatives in government — not just Congress, but at the state and local level as well — to voice your urgency that our government thoughtfully protect the nation’s children in its schools.

Take action. On April 20th, the anniversary of the Columbine tragedy, there will be actions across the country, including efforts to shut down education as usual for the day in recognition of the safety crisis in our schools. We can each gather information and thoughtfully consider what role we want to play.

Elevate the work of others. Even if you’re unsure of how to find the words or how to take action, sharing the words and actions of others can be movement in itself.

This is not a comprehensive list of every advocacy effort, nor is it a list for every teacher to accomplish. The key is to know your community and what it needs — and then to take real and measurable actions to meet those needs.

Is there really hope to ending school shootings in America?

Jim Wallis defines hope as “believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change.” We have all experienced that phenomenon with students who defy the odds. Now, working with our students, we have the opportunity to make the evidence change, to defy political inaction, to bring about the safe schools children deserve.

Courage is contagious. Be brave. Be hopeful. Teach.

-Those honored to have represented you,

Sydney Chaffee, 2017 National Teacher of the Year
Jahana Hayes, 2016 National Teacher of the Year
Shanna Peeples, 2015 National Teacher of the Year
Sean McComb, 2014 National Teacher of the Year
Jeff Charbonneau, 2013 National Teacher of the Year
Rebecca Mieliwocki, 2012 National Teacher of the Year
Michelle Shearer, 2011 National Teacher of the Year
Sarah Brown Wessling, 2010 National Teacher of the Year
Andrea Peterson, 2007 National Teacher of the Year
Kim Oliver Burnim, 2006 National Teacher of the Year