Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Thoughts on our Recent National Tragedy

Last Friday I met with a staff member who is a former middle school teacher.  Before we began, she informed me of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  She was crying. When you’re a teacher, every child is your child and every educational professional is part of a larger community who understands that connection.  Losing those children and those colleagues, even though we’ve not met them, is more than a news story.  The loss of these children and these colleagues brings us all to tears.  These are our children and these are our colleagues, and this is our loss.  Every educator grieves with the community of Newtown, Connecticut. 

Other people are talking and writing about the issues of violence and our children.  They will write about the 1,187 children under 18 whom the FBI statistics tell us were violently killed in 2011.  Or they’ll tell us that 565 of those children were killed by firearms.  The discussions have already started about the confluence of mental illness and firearms, and of the need for families to have more support around family members with mental illness.  These discussions will go forward and, as the President suggested, they must lead to action.

However, this also seems a time for us to examine how we perceive schools and educators and children.  Over the past 30 years, we seem to have developed a general perception that educators have failed and that schools have failed, despite all the evidence that we have that this isn’t the case.  Our popular media sometimes portrays a few educators as saints and, more often, as manipulating, bumbling caricatures who only take the job for the easy work it offers.  That’s in contrast to the educators I know.  The educators I know are dedicated folks who care deeply about children and work hard to help children create their futures.  Educators weep when a child is harmed because we see what children can become.  Despite what I know from working alongside, observing, and training educators, some pressure groups have decided that what they perceive to be problems in education come from educators.  These detractors are wrong in both their perception of failure and their perception of educators.

The educators at Sandy Hook Elementary who died were killed as they protected children.  That makes them heroes.  I believe that these extraordinary people were actually ordinary educators who reacted to a moment that required the bravery that came when the children they cared for were threatened.  It’s the same level of care that got them up that morning to go to work and perform among the most important valuable roles that we ask of adults.  They didn’t expect to become martyred heroes that morning when they went to work – they just expected that they’d have the privilege of educating, of seeing children becoming their futures in small increments.  That’s what educators do, and experiencing that privilege is what makes us care so deeply about children.

Educators aren’t saints – like every other person, we stumble in trying to live up to our ideals.  But educators are an amazing profession of people who spend our lives in dedication to others and in hope for the future.  It is this focus on hope that really defines us.  Unlike any other profession that I know, it is hope that frames education.  We see more of what is possible than what only is.  When hope is taken away for children, we cry; but we look forward to the next moment and the next hope.  An unimaginable tragedy like the murder of 20 children and six colleagues doesn’t distinguish our hope.  It gives us more resolve to serve children better. 

So maybe we can stop with the negative perceptions and mischaracterizations of who and what educators are.  And maybe we can start a new conversation that looks to our educators as the keepers of hope whom they are.  Maybe while we discuss firearms, mental illness, and public safety, we can also talk about the strengths of our educational workforce and the amazing miracles they perform daily.  We must honor the heroes who gave their lives in a moment of threat.  And we must also honor all of the educators who give their lives daily.