How Teachers Like Me Can Renew Ourselves This Summer

This school year was perhaps the most difficult one I’ve experienced in two decades in the classroom.

From constantly having to cover for sick or otherwise absent staff, to absorbing student traumas suffered in years of a pandemic, to increased student fights, social awkwardness and administrators demanding more paperwork and untried initiatives that get dropped for another fad next week…

It’s been rough!

Now that most K-12 schools have begun or are about to begin summer break, it can be hard to rest and renew yourself for the coming year.

To be honest, many teachers have already decided to leave.

At my district, more teachers have retired this year than at any time since I was hired – about 10% of the staff.

And some even quit in the middle of the year – something that hardly ever happens.

If things don’t change this year, it will be worse next year.

But for those like me planning on returning in the Fall, congratulations. You made it through.

Now what?

I don’t know about you, but I often find myself nibbled by stress and anxiety.

I try to sleep, I try to rest, but worry and hopelessness settle down on me like a shroud.

If you’re like me, you may need some help getting through it all.

So here’s a list of five things we can do – not just you, but me, too – that hopefully will help us rejuvenate ourselves somewhat in the next few months and set us up for a successful year with our students.

1) Be Present with Friends and Family

Teachers often live in their heads.

We’re always planning a new lesson or thinking about how to help a student or improve something from the year before.

But this is summer break.

It’s time to tune out and turn off.

You’re home and hopefully you can find some time to spend with friends and family.

Just remember to try to be there. Actually be there.

Don’t live in your head. Live in the moment.

Let the present open up in front of you and actually enjoy the things you’re doing.

Our professional lives often demand we sacrifice so much time with our significant others, our kids, and the people we care about. Now is the time to balance the scales and enjoy their company. And nothing else.

This can be easier said than done, but it’s worth a try.

2) Don’t Focus on Things You Can’t Change

There is so much going on in the world, and we’re teachers. We’re problem solvers.

We want to fix broken things, and there is so much broken out there. The news is often not our friend.

I’m not saying to ignore what’s going on. We do so at our peril. But we have to try to put it all in context.

We’re just people – individuals caught in nets of complexity. We can’t solve all these problems ourselves.

A horrible regressive monster is running for Governor in the Fall who would destroy your profession and endanger your child’s future. Got it.

The government still hasn’t passed any meaningful measures to keep guns out of the hands of school shooters. Got it.

Politicians are still attacking your profession, history, science, math and enlightenment values. Argh!

And they’ll still be doing it at the end of August.

Take a break from it all.

Worrying will not change anything. And it will all be there for you later.

Just try to focus your mind elsewhere – for a little while.

3) Let Go of Resentments

This can be really hard but important.

There are a lot of people who have probably said or done things that made your life difficult this year.

It could be that parent who screamed at you on the phone over an assignment their child didn’t turn in.

It could be an administrator who made another stupid initiative that makes him/her look good while increasing your work load but does nothing to help the students.

It could be a sincerely stupid politician accused with pedophilia and insurrection who thinks taking pot shots at teachers will win him votes from the lowest common denominator.

It could be… so many people.

Take a deep breath and let it go.

You don’t need that baggage weighing you down.

As Nelson Mandela is supposed to have said:

“Having resentment against someone is like drinking poison and thinking it will kill your enemy.”

Leave that behind.

There will be plenty more next year.

4) Don’t Expect Too Much of Yourself

Often our harshest critic is ourselves.

We try so hard to be kind to everyone all year. This summer, be kind to yourself.

It’s break time. You don’t have to clean the whole house top to bottom. You don’t have to finally rearrange the utility drawer or any of a million other things that have been waiting around for you to get to them.

By all means, make those doctor’s appointments you’ve been waiting on. Buy a new pair of shoes. Cut the grass.

But if something doesn’t get done, don’t feel like it’s a failure.

You are allowed to simply do nothing.

Sometimes that’s the best thing we can do.

Be as productive as you want. Sometimes that helps alleviate stress, too – the satisfaction of getting things accomplished.

However, this break is not all about crossing things off your TO DO list.

It’s about rest and renewal.

Cut yourself some slack.

No one else will.

5) Remember Why You Got into Teaching

When you feel ready to turn your mind back to the job, try not to think of all the negative things waiting for you.

Don’t even let your mind rest on the uncertainties and anxieties ahead.

Focus on why you’re still a teacher.

You’re not chained to this profession. You probably had the chance to leave if you’d wanted.

Why did you get into education in the first place?

What are the things about it that you still love and enjoy?

For me, it’s nearly everything in the classroom, itself.

It’s interacting with students.

It’s helping them succeed and then seeing the look of joy on their faces when they do.

I love everything about my job – the subject I teach, the students, being there when there’s no one else.

It’s just all the stuff outside the classroom that I can’t stand.

I make a file during the year full of Christmas cards, goodbye messages from parents and students, positive emails, etc. During the summer is a perfect time to read through them and remember the good things.

At least, that’s what I try to do anyway.

So there’s my list. I hope you found it helpful.

Health, relaxation, calm. Be warned – I’m certainly no expert on the subject.

Remember the words of author Nakeia Homer:

“You are not lazy, unmotivated, or stuck. After years of living your life in survival mode, you are exhausted.”

Finding ways to recharge and renew is something I know I desperately need – maybe as you do, too.

Here’s hoping we can find the peace we need this summer.

The new academic year will be here before we know it.


 

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Teachers Are Not Okay

At the staff meeting the other day, one of my fellow teachers turned to me and said he was having trouble seeing.

He rushed home and had to have his blood pressure meds adjusted.

Another co-worker was sent home because one of her students had tested positive for Covid-19 and she had gone over to his desk to help him with his assignment.

I, myself, came home on Friday and was so beat down I just collapsed into bed having to spend the next week going from one medical procedure to another to regain my health.


The teachers are not okay.

This pandemic has been particularly hard on us.

Through every twist and turn, teachers have been at the center of the storm.

When schools first closed, we were heroes for teaching on-line.

When they remained closed, we were villains for wanting to remain there – safe from infection.

Then there was a vaccine and many of us wanted to reopen our schools but only if we were prioritized to be vaccinated first. We actually had to fight for the right to be vaccinated.

When our students got sick, we sounded the alarm – only to get gas lighting from the CDC that kids don’t catch Covid and even if they do, they certainly never catch it at school.

We were asked to redo our entire curriculums on-line, then in-person for handfuls of students in funky two-day blocks, then teach BOTH on-line and in-person at the same time.

The summer was squandered with easing of precautions and not enough adults and teens getting vaccinated. Then schools reopened in August and September to debates over whether we should continue safety precautions like requiring students and staff wear masks and if we should expand them to include mandatory vaccinations for all staff and eligible students to protect kids 11 and younger who can’t take the vaccine yet.

It’s been a rough year and a half, and I can tell you from experience – TEACHERS ARE EXHAUSTED.

As of Sept. 17, 2021, at least 1,116 active and retired K-12 educators have died of COVID-19, according to Education Week. Of that number, at least 361 were active teachers still on the job.

I’m sure the real number is much higher.

According to the Associated Press, the Covid pandemic has triggered a spike in teacher retirements and resignations not to mention a shortage of tutors and special aides.

Difficulties filling teacher openings have been reported in Tennessee, New Jersey and South Dakota. In the Mount Rushmore State, one district started the school year with 120 teacher vacancies.

In Texas, districts in Houston, Waco and other neighborhoods reported teacher vacancies in the hundreds as the school year began.

Several schools nationwide have had to shut down classrooms because there just weren’t enough teachers.

The problem didn’t start with Covid.

Educators have been quietly walking away from the profession for years now due to poor compensation, lack of respect, autonomy and support.

For instance, teachers are paid 20% less than other college-educated workers with similar experience. A 2020 survey found that 67% of teachers have or had a second job to make ends meet.

This isn’t rocket science. If people refuse to work for a certain wage, you need to increase compensation.

But it’s not just pay.

According to a survey in June of 2,690 members of the National Education Association, 32% said the pandemic was likely to make them leave the profession earlier than expected. That’s almost a third of educators – one in three – who plan to abandon teaching because of the pandemic.

Another survey by the RAND Corp. said the pandemic increased teacher attrition, burnout and stress. In fact, educators were almost twice as likely as other adult workers to have frequent job-related stress and almost three times more likely to experience depression.

The CDC Foundation in May released similar results – 27% of teachers reporting depression and 37% reporting anxiety.

However, the RAND survey went even deeper pinpointing several causes of stressful working conditions. These were (1) a mismatch between actual and preferred mode of instruction, (2) lack of administrator and technical support, (3) technical issues with remote teaching, and (4) lack of implementation of COVID-19 safety measures. 

I have to admit that’s what I’m seeing in the district where I teach.

We have had several staff meetings in the four weeks since students have been back in the classroom and none of them have focused on how we are keeping students and staff safe from Covid. In fact, administration seems happy to simply ignore that a pandemic is even going on.

We’ve talked about academic standards, data driven instruction, behavior plans, lesson planning, dividing the students up based on standardized test scores but NOTHING on the spikey viral ball in the room!

We get emails and phone calls every few days from the district about how many students and staff have tested positive and if close contacts were identified. But nothing is done to stop the steady stream of illness.

And these communiques willfully hide the extent of these outbreaks. For example, here’s an announcement from Sept. 13:

“We have learned that a Middle School staff member has tested positive for COVID-19. There were no close contacts associated with that case. We also have learned that a Middle School student has tested positive. Close contacts for this case have been identified and notified. Thank you.”

This announcement failed to disclose that contacts for the student were the entire middle school girl’s volleyball team. That’s 16-17 students who were all quarantined as a result.

Teachers are tired of this.

And I don’t mean palm-on-my-head, woe-is-me tired.

I mean collapsing-in-a-heap tired.

We are getting physically ill – even when it isn’t directly attributed to Covid, it’s from the stress.

At my district, the school board even refused to mandate masks. It took action from the governor to require this simplest of safety precautions. Do you know how much these kind of senseless shenanigans drain educators who just want to make it through the day without catching a potentially fatal illness!?

There are so many teachers absent every day. We know because there aren’t enough subs, either, so those of us who do show up usually have to cover missing teachers classes between teaching our own classes and fulfilling our other duties.

Things cannot continue this way.

We need help and support.

We can’t be the only people responsible for dealing with society’s problems anymore.

You can’t just put us in a room with kids and tell us to work it all out.

You can’t refuse to listen to us but blame us when things go wrong.

No one’s going to stay for that – not even for the kids.

We are literally falling apart here.

We want to be there for our students, to give as much as we can, but many of us are running out of things to give.

The system is built on the backs of teachers.

And we are ready to collapse.


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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Teachers Are More Stressed Out Than You Probably Think

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When I was just a new teacher, I remember my doctor asking me if I had a high stress job.

 

I said that I taught middle school, as if that answered his question. But he took it to mean that I had it easy. After all – as he put it – I just played with children all day.

 

Now after 16 years in the classroom and a series of chronic medical conditions including heart disease, Crohn’s Disease and a recent battle with shingles though I’m only in my 40s, he knows better.

 

Teaching is one of the most stressful jobs you can have.

 

You don’t put your life on the line in the same way the police or a soldier does. You don’t risk having a finger chopped off like someone working in a machine shop. You don’t even have to worry like a truck driver about falling asleep and drifting off the road.

 

But you do work a ridiculous amount of hours per day. You lose time with family, children and friends. And no matter how hard you work, you’re given next to no resources to get it done with, your autonomy is stripped away, you’re given mountains of unnecessary bureaucratic paperwork, you’re told how to do your job by people who know nothing about education, and you’re scapegoated for all of society’s ills.

 

Not to mention that you’re expected to buy supplies for your students out of your own pocket, somehow magically raise student test scores but still authentically teach, convince parents not to send their children to the local fly-by-night charter or voucher school and prepare for an unlikely but possible school shooter!

 

Oh! And the pay isn’t competitive given the years of schooling you need just to qualify to do the work!!

 

 

That causes a mighty amount of stress.

 

 
One in five teachers (20%) feels tense about their job most or all of the time, according to an analysis by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) in England. In similar professions, only one in eight feel this way (13%).

 

 

But those are conservative estimates.

 

 

A representative survey of more than 4,000 educators conducted in 2017 by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Badass Teachers Association (BATs) found even more stark results.

 

Educators and school staff find their work “always” or “often” stressful 61 percent of the time. Workers in similar professions say that their job is “always” or “often” stressful only 30 percent of the time.

 

That kind of tension among teachers has consequences. More than half of educators reported that they have less enthusiasm now than at the beginning of their careers.

 

One respondent commented:

 

“This job is stressful, overwhelming and hard. I am overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, questioned and blamed for things that are out of my control.”

WORK LOAD

 

 

The most obvious cause of teacher stress is the workload.

 

 

Though the details vary slightly from study to study, the vast majority highlight this as the number one factor.

 

 

The NFER study concluded that teachers work longer hours than people in other professions though a less number of official days. This is because of the school year – classes meet for about 9-10 months but require far more than 40 hours a week to get everything done. In fact, teachers are putting in a full years work or more in those limited days.

 

 

For instance, an average American puts in about 260 days at work a year. Teachers average 70 less days but do the same (or more) hours that other employees put in during the full 260 days. But teachers are only paid for 190 days. So they do roughly the same amount of work in a shorter time span and are paid less for it. The result is a poor work-life balance and higher stress levels.

 

 

But exactly how many hours do teachers routinely work? It depends on who you ask.

 

 

The University College London Institute of Education estimates that one in four teachers works 60 hours a week or more – a figure that has remained consistent for the past 25 years.

 

 
According to NFER, teachers work an average of 47 hours a week, with a quarter working 60 hours a week or more and one in 10 working more than 65 hours a week.

 

 

Four in 10 teachers said they usually worked in the evenings, and one in 10 work on weekends.

 

 

Both of these studies refer to British teachers but estimates are similar for teachers in the United States.

 

 

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that teachers in both countries are among those who work the most hours annually. The average secondary teacher in England teaches 1,225 hours a year. The average secondary teacher in the United States teaches 1,080 hours a year. Across the OECD, the average for most countries is 709 hours.

 

Finally, a study focusing just on US teachers by Scholastic, found that educators usually work 53 hours a week. That comes out to 7.5 hours a day in the classroom teaching. In addition, teachers spend 90 minutes before and/or after school mentoring, tutoring, attending staff meetings and collaborating with peers. Plus 95 additional minutes at home grading papers, preparing classroom activities and other job-related tasks.

 

And teachers who oversee extracurricular clubs put in an additional 11-20 hours a week.

 

 

No matter how you slice it, that’s a lot of extra hours.

 

 

According to the NFER study, two out of five teachers (41%) are dissatisfied with their amount of leisure time, compared to 32% of people in similar professionals.

 

This is a prime factor in the exodus of trained professionals leaving the field in droves, sometimes miscalled a teacher “shortage.”

 

 

It’s why one in six new teachers leave the profession after just a year in the classroom.

 

 

 

SALARY

 

 

Another contributing factor is salary.

 

 

Teacher pay in the United States (and many other countries) is not competitive for the amount of training required and responsibilities put on employees.

 

 

According to the Economic Policy Institute, teachers in the United States make 14 percent less than people from professions that require similar levels of education.

 

Sadly, it only gets worse as time goes on.

 

Teacher salary starts low, and grows even more slowly.

 

 

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According to a report by the Center for American Progress, on average teachers with 10 years experience only get a roughly $800 raise per year. No wonder more than 16 percent of teachers have a second or third job outside of the school system. They simply can’t survive on the salary.

 

They can’t buy a home or even rent an apartment in most metropolitan areas. They can’t afford to marry, raise children, or eke out a middle class existence.

 

 

BACK TO WORKLOAD

 

 

This mixture of refusing to pay teachers what they’re worth and expecting them to do more-and-more with less-and-less is unsustainable.

 

 
Today’s public schools employ at least 250,000 fewer people than they did before the recession of 2008–09. Meanwhile enrollment has increased by at least 800,000 students.

 

So if we wanted our kids to have the same quality of service children received in this country only a decade ago, we’d need to hire almost 400,000 more teachers!

 

That’s how you cut class size down from the 20, 30, even 40 students packed into a room that you can routinely find in some districts today.

 

 

The fact that we refuse to invest in our schools only increases the workload of the teachers who are still there. They look around and see students in desperate need and have to choose between what’s good for them, personally, and what’s good for their students.

 

 

THAT’S why teachers are working so many unpaid hours. They’re giving all they have to help their students despite a society that refuses to provide the necessary time and resources.

 

 

And make no mistake, one of those resources is having enough teachers to get the job done.

 

 

RESPECT

 

 

For a lot of teachers, the issue boils down to respect – lack of it.

 

 

Teachers are expected to do everything and then denigrated when they can’t accomplish miracles every single day.

 

 

The fact is teachers are extremely important – the most important in-school factor for student success.

 

 

However, that doesn’t make them the most important factor in the entire learning process.

 

 
Roughly 60% of academic achievement can be explained by family background – things like income and poverty level. School factors only account for 20% – and of that, teachers account for 15%. (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).

 

Estimates vary somewhat from study to study, but the basic structure holds. The vast majority of impact on learning comes from the home and out-of-school factors. Teachers are a small part of the picture. They are the largest single factor in the school building, but the school, itself, is only one of many components.

 

 

The people who know teachers the best—parents, co-workers and students—show much more respect for teachers than elected officials and media pundits, many of whom rarely set foot in a classroom, according to the 2017 BATs and AFT Quality of Work Life Survey.

 

 
While educators feel most respected by their colleagues, they also indicated that their direct supervisors showed them much more respect than their school boards, the media, elected officials and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. A total of 86 percent of respondents did not feel respected by DeVos.

 

 
Most educators said they felt like they had moderate to high control over basic decisions within their own classrooms, but their level of influence and control dropped significantly on policy decisions that directly impact their classroom – such as setting discipline policy, performance standards and deciding how resources are spent.

 

 

“This lack of voice over important instructional decisions is a tangible example of the limited respect policymakers have for educators,” the report concluded.

 

 

Sometimes this lack of respect leads to outright bullying.

 

A total of 43 percent of respondents in the public survey group reported having been bullied, harassed or threatened at work in the last year. Of these reports, 35% included claims of having been bullied by administrators, principals or supervisors, 23% by co-workers, 50% by students, 31% by students’ parents. Many claimed to have been bullied by multiple sources.

 

 

This is a much higher rate of bullying, harassment and threats than workers in the general population.

 

 

I, myself, have experienced this even to the point of being physically injured by students multiple times – nothing so serious that it put me in the hospital, but enough to require a doctor’s visit.

 

 

And to make matters worse, one-third of respondents said that teachers and faculty at their schools did not felt safe bringing up problems and addressing issues.

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

 

Teacher stress is a real problem in our schools.

 

 

If we want to provide our children with a world class education, we need to look out for the educators who do the actual work.

 

 

We need to drastically reduce the workload expected of them. We need to hire more teachers so the burden can be more adequately sustained. We need to increase teacher salary to retain those already on the job and to attract the most qualified applicants in the future. We need to stop blaming teachers for every problem in society and give them the respect and autonomy they deserve for having volunteered to do one of the most important jobs in any society. And we have to stop bullying and harassing them.

 

 

As a nation, our children are our most valuable resource. If we want to do what’s best for the generations to come, we need to stop stressing out those brave people who step up to guide our kids into a brighter tomorrow.

 

 

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Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Arming Already Stressed Out Teachers Will Only Increase the Chance of School Shootings

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It happened in Georgia yesterday.

 

A beloved social studies teacher locked himself in his classroom while his students stood outside the door.

 

When the principal came with the key, the teacher fired a handgun through an exterior window.

 

Students ran, one even twisting her ankle in the escape.

 

Thankfully, no one else appears to have been injured.

 

However, the incident brings into focus a vital component of the gun debate.

 

Teachers are already under tremendous stress.

 

Arming them won’t stop gun violence. All it does is add another potential shooter.

 

It’s only been about two weeks since a shooting at Stonemason Douglas High School in Florida left 17 dead.

 

That’s at least 19 school shootings so far in 2018 – and it’s only the beginning of March!

 

In that time, the national media and the Trump administration have focused on one specific solution to stopping such violence from happening again: giving teachers guns.

 

The latest incident in Georgia underlines why this is such a terrible idea.

 

Teachers are not super heroes.

 

Take it from me. I’m an almost 15 year veteran of the middle school classroom in western Pennsylvania.

 

We’re just human beings.

 

My colleagues and I have all the same human failings and weaknesses as everybody else.

 

We get tired and overworked and put upon and stressed and sometimes…

 

…Sometimes we don’t handle it well.

 

I know some people don’t want to hear it.

 

Society has piled all kinds of responsibilities and unreasonable expectations on our shoulders.

 

We’re no longer allowed to be just educators.

 

We’re parents, counselors, disciplinarians, doctors, psychologists, lawyers, nutritionists…. The list goes on-and-on.

 

And now politicians actually want us to add law enforcement to the job description?

 

We’re already under colossal pressure, and some folks want to add a gun to that situation?

 

That’s lighting a fuse.

 

But don’t just take my word for it.

 

Back in 2015, tens of thousands of educators filled out the Quality of Worklife Survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers and the Badass Teachers Association.

 

After responses from 91,000 school employees and 31,000 who completed the entire 80-question survey, a picture of the emotional landscape became clear.

 

A total 73% of respondents said they often feel stressed at work.

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The reasons? Adoption of new initiatives without proper training or professional development (71%), negative portrayal of teachers and school employees in the media (55%), uncertain job expectations (47%) and salary (46%) were the most common responses.

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The survey identified the following as most common everyday stressors in the workplace – time pressures, disciplinary issues and even a lack of opportunity to use the bathroom.

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Focusing just on the classroom, top stressors were mandated curriculum, large class sizes and standardized testing.

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Many teachers claimed to be the victims of violence at school.

 

A total 18% of all respondents said they had been threatened with physical violence – though the percentage jumped to 27% when looking solely at special education teachers.

 

A total of 9% of all respondents claimed to have been physically assaulted at school. Again the percentage jumped to 18% of all special education teachers.

 

But it’s not just physical assault.

 

A total of 30% claim to have been bullied by administrators (58%), co-workers (38%), students (34%) and student’s parents (30%).

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This is the situation where policymakers want to throw firearms.

 

Most gun violence doesn’t involve a shooter doing harm to others. The great majority of gun deaths are self-inflicted.

 

Even without adding guns to the mix, several high profile teachers and administrators already have committed suicide.

 

In October of 2010, for example, a California elementary school teacher named Rigoberto Ruelas, Jr. took his own life after the Los Angeles Times published a report labeling him a “less effective teacher.” Despite the fact that students and parents praised Ruelas, who taught in one of poorest schools in his district and who also was born, raised and continued to live in area where his school was located, the Times targeted him among other so-called “less effective” teachers as part of a major propaganda campaign.

 

And this isn’t an isolated incident. In July of 2015, a New York City principal under investigation for altering Common Core test scores, killed herself by jumping in front of a subway car.

 

Adding guns to this situation will just mean more teachers taking their own lives with a bullet.

 

That may have been the intent of the Georgia teacher in yesterday’s shooting.

 

Local police said they didn’t think he was trying to injure anyone else. When he shot his gun out of the window, he appeared to be trying to get others to leave him alone.

 

Arming teachers is a terrible solution to school violence. It’s taking an already stifling room and turning up the heat.

 

We need sensible gun regulations to reduce the pressure, not increase it.

 

We need sensible school policies that treat teachers and students like human beings and not just cogs in the system.

 

But this requires us to break out of a dangerous pattern in how we deal with social problems.

 

When we see a problem, we generally just shrug and leave it up to public schools and teachers to solve.

 

Inadequate resources – leave it to teachers to buy school supplies out of pocket.

 

Inequitable funding – increase class size and leave it to teachers to somehow make up the difference.

 

We can’t do the same with gun violence. We can’t just toss teachers a gun and tell them to sort it out.

 

Teachers can’t solve all of society’s problems alone.

 

That’s going to take all of us.

 

And we’ll need more than disingenuous proposals like answering gun violence with more guns.