Dangerous Profession

December 1, 2010 at 11:57 am 5 comments

It can be easy to forget that this is a dangerous profession. Then something like this happens to remind you.

I teach some pretty mis-fitted misfits, and some rough characters, too. I have students who spend their days at school and their evenings/nights in juvie. Students who are active gang members, drug users, you name it.

I also teach fifteen-year-old kids like Sam Hengel, children who seem perfectly okay on the outside. Kids who love hunting and fishing and football, who have friends, who are Boy Scouts and active church members and good students and beloved siblings and children.

And while there’s a little idea in the back of your head that the catfighting daughter of the known gang leaders might come to school with a knife, or that Mr. “Just Got Out of Rehab” might have a gun in his locker, you don’t really think about the seemingly well-adjusted straight-A students going to the bathroom and coming back to class with two guns, knives, and hundreds of bullets. You don’t really think about that kid firing a gun into your movie projector, firing a gun into the wall near where you’re standing – trying to figure out what, as the teacher responsible for all these lives as well as your own, you ought to be doing right now – holding your class hostage for hours into the evening.

But it could happen. It did happen.

As a secondary teacher, I work closely with 162 people living through one of the toughest – biologically and psychologically – periods in their lives. They’re hormonal and confused, angry and sleep-deprived. They’re growing toward independence but forced into impotence. They’ve got money, internet connections, Paypal accounts, fake IDs. They drink, even the good ones, and self-medicate with OTC treatments. They’re frustrated with adults because they feel like they are adults and are held to many adult standards/responsibilities without being given the equal number of adult privileges. They’re caught up in a ridiculous soap opera of romantic and platonic relationships, complicated by social pressure and bullying, especially if they’ve got the added social burden of being in some way “different” from the mainstream.

And the fear of change is a never-fading spector hanging over a high school. For some, it’s a good fear: the anticipation of what-comes-next. For many others, it’s the anxiety of knowing that nothing comes next, that there is high school and then the bleak life of someone without something better to look forward to. I teach students who dread Christmas and summer break because they rob them of what little stability and positivity (and food) they have in their lives.

I try to be warm and kind to these kids, but I have to be strict. I have to make them do things they don’t want to do, and give them consequences when they don’t. And I’m only human – a human with hormones, too, and problems, and days when I’m crankier to my kids than I ought to be.

At any moment, any of these kids – even my future valedictorian, even my quarterback, even my Mormon Boy Scouts, even my gangbanger – could decide that English class was the right time and place to take a stand against everything that sucks in their lives. And what do you do if you’re one of the things that they want to take a stand against?

Sam’s teacher, Valerie Burd, was fifteen minutes into teaching social studies that day when Sam returned from the restroom with his arsenal. When he destroyed the film projector, Ms. Burd asked him what was going on and was told to shut up. For hours, she and the other students swallowed their terror and worked tirelessly to keep Sam calm and each other alive. Twenty-three of her students survived. Burd didn’t see Sam die; when he began firing his gun at the end, she pulled the nearest student to the floor and was there when the SWAT team stormed the room.

There’s a lot of talk amongst educators and policy-makers about whether teaching is a job or a profession. You have to be highly educated, but you can have a substitute if you call in sick. We’re salaried and have high levels of creative autonomy, but we also have a union. It’s a significant part of the trouble with the treatment (financial, etc.) of teachers in our country, I’d say.

My argument would be that teachers should be considered civil servants, just like policemen and firemen. I mean, technically we are; a civil servant is just a non-military government employee, particularly those employed on the basis of professional merit. But we’re rarely considered alongside that population, probably because we don’t wear a uniform. If you think about what teachers do, though, and under what conditions, aren’t we very much like policemen and firemen? Aren’t teachers kind of heroes, too?



Thoughts on Education Dangerous Profession, Part II

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. M  |  December 2, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    I was going to write about this, but you did it so eloquently that I don’t need to! I had a talk about the situation with my TA today. The scariest part is that, to everyone’s knowledge, he was a good kid, a “normal” kid. That terrifies me. I hope you don’t mind if I repost this!

    • 2. R&C  |  December 2, 2010 at 5:00 pm

      Not at all – go right ahead. 🙂

  • 3. Jessica  |  December 2, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    I think that, since Teachers are up there with Nurses and Police officers on mandatory reporting rules, I’ve always thought of them AS civil servants. I find that more true of a teacher than of, say, a city clerk.

    But the fact of the matter is that no one has a “safe” job – and we can all be in a dangerous situation out shopping, or at a football game. All it takes is one pissed off employee, or family member, or whatever – and the place you are in just became the scene of something tragic.

    I would hope that we all impact the people in our lives (adults and kids) in a positive light – so that if it came down to it, that we’d survive such an encounter. Although I would caution against counting on that. It’s why I think self defense (specifically, knowing takedowns) is a worthy idea.

    Hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst. That way, all of your surprises will be pleasant. (Doubly so, here in earthquake country 😉

    • 4. R&C  |  December 2, 2010 at 5:02 pm

      Well, no, no jobs are 100% safe – LIFE isn’t safe. But I daresay that working with adolescents is more potentially risky than working with adults. After all, when you go to work in a cube-farm, the people there are getting paid to be there, chose to be there (to some extent) and made it to adulthood and reasonably stable hormone levels. And the same can’t be said for students. The emotional/psychological health of adolescents is a scary thing.

  • 5. Rachel  |  December 3, 2010 at 6:45 am

    Wow, I had not heard of this. Bravo for a thoughtful post. I already want to scream at our society “What is WRONG with us?!” when schools have to undergo training for an attack in the school. Heck, at my old school there was talk from the school board about appointing specific, unidentified teachers with guns in case anything should happen. Why must it come to that? Now schools across the nation will be adding hostage situations to their teacher training. It terrifies me, and I just wonder how far this is going to go before we can make a real change. Maybe Sam is the key — clearly, there’s something more going on in our youth than just bullying or feeling excluded.


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The Bee’s Knees

This is the teaching journal of a student first-year second-year THIRD-YEAR (!!!) English teacher. I am writing this blog as a reflection for myself, a way to keep friends and family updated, and a sharing-ground between other educators online. I love comments!

I am striving to maintain anonymity on this blog so that I may more freely interact with my fellow edubloggers. If you know who I am, please help me protect my anonymity in your comments. I use pseudonyms or initials for everyone I write about to preserve their anonymity as well.

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