Brook Edwards is a high school friend of my sister, but I have gotten to know her a bit better over the years. We have a shared love of teaching, and I have found her insights into practical, pedagogical, and policy issues to be full of wisdom. In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, politicians and policy wonks have been talking about arming teachers. I thought maybe they should listen to a teacher’s opinion first. Brooke is dealing with a difficult family situation at the moment, and I am grateful to her for taking the time to share her experiences with us. – David J.
I taught in the inner city for four years, and the talk of arming teachers inside of the classroom got me thinking about if I would prefer to teach with a gun strapped to my hip or not. My first thought was, “Yes! Of course I would want a gun!” I was raised to believe that an armed society was a polite society and that guns helped otherwise unsavory people have better manners.
I taught social studies in one of the most dangerous school systems in America. Every year we competed with Detroit and Washington D.C. for the ignominy of having the highest crime rate in the country. I have degrees in history and I know the importance and privilege and sanctity of the Second Amendment. I know how to handle a weapon and I am a decent marksman. So were many of the teachers that I taught with (which included quite a few veterans)! I know that teachers used to be armed only two centuries ago in the same city I taught in (in case they were attacked by Indians). Why wouldn’t a teacher back then want a gun?
During my second year of teaching, there was a drive-by shooting at my school. Like I said, I know how to use a gun, but there would have been no way to fire a shot without putting innocent students in danger. There were at least sixty children scattered between me and the shooter – five within my line of sight at any given time. The only thing I had time to do was to grab the kids closest to me and throw them to the ground.
Another time a student brought a gun to school (there was a lot of gang activity where I taught). There would have been no point to me having a gun in that situation, either, because there would have been no point to me shooting. The student brought the gun so that his classmate could defend himself during a planned confrontation in his neighborhood that evening, but he did not know to put the safety on before passing it to his classmate. A teacher asked for the gun after it misfired, the student handed it over, and the situation was resolved with no fuss.
There were no casualties in either of those incidents.
I believe that the second situation ended peacefully because the students trusted the teacher. There was no intent to actually harm anyone, so they knew a quick surrender of the weapon was their best bet. If the teacher had been a different person or even someone who had the option of using a gun immediately, it might not have happened that way. If a gun was drawn, the student would not have felt like it was an option to back down, instead of turning the power over to the teacher.
Every school I taught at had a police substation in it, with armed police officers and gang task force members. At the last school I taught at, I had an armed ex-Marine-on-duty police officer in my room every day. I taught five classes of 10-15 students at any given time; it was an alternative school where every one of my 13 and 14 year old students had committed a felony (most involving violent crime). But I never felt threatened by any of my kids, who often brought me little presents and tried their hardest, because they knew my school was their last chance at a normal life. There was one time when I got my nose broken, but that was because I was breaking up a fight between two other students and I was hit accidentally. I wouldn’t have been able to pull out a gun on either of those girls (but I did learn to never break up a girl-fight again.)
I cannot see where having a gun would be effective inside of an inner-city classroom. I was often the smallest person there. Had a fight escalated, I do not doubt that one of my students could have taken the gun from me, making it a danger to have inside of the classroom, and leaving me with a guilty conscience. Perhaps the suburban schools might see a need for it, but as I have never taught at one of those schools, I would not be the person you would need to ask to about that. (Also, having a locked cabinet to keep a gun in would not have worked. When I needed access to things like good books in the library, or the thermostat so that we could turn on the air conditioning, I could always call upon a few students to pick the locks for me.)
I can say this with complete certainty: not a single student would feel comforted by the presence of a gun on school grounds. I taught social studies. We talked about racially and religiously charged subjects in a racially and religiously diverse classroom. Students could sometimes feel threatened by their teacher, so I needed to be able to declare “neutral territory.” That means: no guns! My students would often return to their homes, on streets that police officers refused to go down, and play “duck and cover” as someone drove by their house to spray bullets indiscriminately through their neighborhood. When gang wars would prove fatal, many of my students would still show up to class, despite the fact that their brothers, who were in opposing gangs, had shot each other the night before. My classroom was safe. It was “neutral,” making it a kind of “hallowed ground,” giving my students a break from the terror of their lives outside my doors. That peace would have been broken – the cease-fire ended – if there had been a way for one of them to access a gun in my room.