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



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.


Middle School Suicides Double As Common Core Testing Intensifies

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Here’s a high stakes testing statistic you won’t hear bandied about on the news.


The suicide rate among 10- to 14-year-olds doubled between 2007 and 2014 – the same period in which states have increasingly adopted Common Core standards and new, more rigorous high stakes tests.


For the first time, suicide surpassed car crashes as a leading cause of death for middle school children.

In 2014, the last year for which data was available, 425 middle schoolers nationwide took their own lives.


To be fair, researchers, educators and psychologists say several factors are responsible for the spike, however, pressure from standardized testing is high on the list.


In fact, it is a hallmark of other nations where children perform better on these tests than our own.


In our efforts to emulate these countries, we’ve inadvertently imported their child suicide problem.


In South Korea, one of the highest performing nations on international tests, youth suicide is a national epidemic.


According to the National Youth Policy Institute in Korea, one in four students considers committing suicide. In fact, Korea has the second highest youth suicide rate among contemporary nations.


For several years, the Korean school system has topped the roughly 70 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) educational league, which measures 15-year-old students’ knowledge through the PISA test, an international student assessment exam within OECD member states.


However, the system is roundly criticized for its emphasis on memorization and test prep with little real-life application. In fact, 75 percent of South Korean children attend “cram schools” where they do little else than prepare for standardized assessments.



Likewise, Chinese students suffer similar curriculum and rates of child suicide. Though Shanghai students have some of the highest scores in OECD, abuse runs rampant.


According to the China Daily, teachers at Hubei Xiaogan No 1 High School in central Hubei province actually rigged their students up to IV drips in the classroom so they could continue studying after being physically exhausted.


Brook Larmer of the New York Times reports visiting student dormitories in Maotanchang, a secluded town in Anhui province, where the windows were covered in wire mesh to prevent students from jumping to their deaths.


In the United States, education “reform” hasn’t reached these depths, but we’re getting closer every year.


Efforts to increase test scores have changed U.S. schools to closer resemble those of Asia. Curriculum is being narrowed to only the tested subjects and instruction is being limited to testing scenarios, workbooks, computer simulations, practice and diagnostic tests.


A classroom where students aren’t allowed to pursue their natural curiosities and are instead directed to boring and abstract drills is not a place of joy and discovery. A school that does not allow children to express themselves but forces constant test prep is a lifeless environment devoid of hope.


But that’s not the worst of it.


American students are increasingly being sorted and evaluated by reference to their test score rather than their classroom grade or other academic indicators. Students are no longer 6th, 7th or 8th graders. They’re Below Basics, Basics, Proficents and Advanced. The classes they’re placed in, the style of teaching, even personal rewards and punishments are determined by a single score.


In some states, like Florida, performance on federally mandated tests actually determine if students can advance to the next grade. Some children pass their classes but don’t move on purely because of test scores well within the margin or error.


The results are devastating.


Marion Brady tells a gut-wrenching story on Alternet about a 9-year-old Florida boy who tried to hang himself after failing the state’s FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) by one point.


His mother explains that he had to take a summer remediation course and a retest, but still failed by one point. She couldn’t bear to tell him, but he insisted that he had failed and was utterly crushed.


After a brief period where he was silent, alone in his room, she became apprehensive:


“I … ran down the hall to [his] room, banged on the door and called his name. No response. I threw the door open. There was my perfect, nine- year-old freckled son with a belt around his neck hanging from a post on his bunk bed. His eyes were blank, his lips blue, his face emotionless. I don’t know how I had the strength to hoist him up and get the belt off but I did, then collapsed on the floor and held [him] as close to my heart as possible. There were no words. He didn’t speak and for the life of me I couldn’t either. I was physically unable to form words. I shook as I held him and felt his heart racing.


“I’d saved [him]! No, not really…I saved him physically, but mentally he was gone…The next 18 months were terrible. It took him six months to make eye contact with me. He secluded himself from friends and family. He didn’t laugh for almost a year…”


The boy had to repeat the third grade but is haunted by what had happened as is his mother.


And this is by no means an isolated incident.


According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the suicide rate for 5- to 14- year-olds jumped by 39.5 percent from 2000 to 2013. The rate for 15- to 24-year-olds, which was already 818% higher than for younger children, also increased during the same time period by 18.9 percent.


That’s more than 5,000 children and rising each year taking their own lives.


Again, high stakes testing isn’t responsible for all of it. But the dramatic increase along with a subsequent increase in high stakes testing is not unrelated.


The Alliance for Childhood, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advises on early education, compiled a report from parents, teachers, school nurses, psychologists, and child psychiatrists noting that the stress of high-stakes testing was literally making children sick.


On testing days, school nurses report that their offices are filled with students complaining of headaches and stomachaches. There have even been reports of uncontrollable sobbing.


In 2013, eight prominent New York principals were so alarmed by this increasing student behavior that they wrote a letter to parents expressing their concerns:


“We know that many children cried during or after testing, and others vomited or lost control of their bowels or bladders. Others simply gave up. One teacher reported that a student kept banging his head on the desk, and wrote, ‘This is too hard,’ and ‘I can’t do this,’ throughout his test booklet.”


And they’re not alone.


In fact, student anxiety is so common on test day that most federally mandated tests include official guidelines specifically outlining how to deal with kids vomiting on their test booklets.


School counselors note increasing student anxiety levels, sleep problems, drug use, avoidance behaviors, attendance problems, acting out, etc. that increase around testing time and during test prep lessons. This is a major contributor, they say, to the unprecedented increase in the number of young children being labeled and treated for psychiatric illnesses ranging from learning disabilities and attention disorders to anxiety and depression.


And the psychological trauma isn’t limited to the students, alone. The adults also suffer from it.


In 2015, Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, a West Harlem elementary school principal, took her own life by jumping in front of a subway train to escape a standardized testing scandal. Under intense pressure from the federal and state government to improve academic achievement, she had allegedly instructed her staff to change students’ answers on a new Common Core aligned high stakes test.


But the trauma isn’t always so dramatic. Teachers and principals often suffer in silence. And when it affects the adults in the room, imagine what it does to the children.


It isn’t that teachers aren’t trying to teach or that students aren’t trying to learn. It’s that the expectations and testing are developmentally inappropriate.


Middle school children’s brains are still growing. They are only physically able to learn certain concepts and skills, but we’re forcing them to deal with increasingly advanced and complex concepts at younger ages.


And when expectations and high stakes consequences come crashing down on children, they can feel there is no way out.


This is why thousands of parents have refused to allow their children to take high stakes standardized testing.


This is why there is a growing grass roots movement against these sorts of assessments and other corporate school reforms.


It’s time the media connect the dots and report these sorts of stories in context.


Don’t just shrug when reporting on child suicide rates, if you report it at all. Give the microphone to experts who can point the finger where it belongs.


And the rest of us need to make sure our representatives at the state, local and federal level know where we stand.


High stakes testing is child abuse. We should not emulate other nations’ scores especially when they come at such a cost.


The fact that we don’t engage in the worst abuses of Asian schools should be a point of pride, not jealousy.


We should cherish and nurture our children even if other nations sacrifice theirs on the altar of competition and statistics.

“Talking Crap” Focus on Teacher Bathroom Breaks Misses the Point on Problems Impacting Teachers


By Yohuru Williams and Steven Singer

Nearly 18 years ago in his 1997 State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton urged Americans to prioritize education. He suggested beginning with building respect for the teaching profession. To “have the best schools,” he observed, “we must have the best teachers.” He continued, “most of us in this chamber would not be here tonight without the help of those teachers.”

Despite Clinton’s eloquence, respect for the teaching profession steadily declined due primarily to a narrative of failure constructed by the proponents of corporate education reform. They consistently blame the power of teachers’ unions and teacher tenure for society’s woes. They use both as a justification to construct a multi-billion dollar industry to standardize and privatize our public schools.

For the most part, the mainstream media has been reluctant to challenge this narrative and point to the real obstacles that exist for teachers. Such is the case with a recent article in The Atlantic by Alia Wong entitled “Using the Restroom – a Privilege If You’re a Teacher” that completely misses the point of a recent survey highlighting some of the substantive issues facing the nation’s teachers.

Tens of thousands of professionals responded to the 2015 survey. The survey was conducted collaboratively by two groups: the Badass Teachers Association, a grassroots network of more than 55,000 educators, parents and students and the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union. The survey yielded shocking results that powerfully illustrate the collateral damage of the “test and punish” environment engulfing public education. This includes such serious allegations regarding workplace conditions that it prompted a meeting between the authors and the U.S. Department of Education. A team of educators working with both BATS and the AFT launched the 80 plus question survey in April. Some 91,000 public school teachers responded and 31,000 completed the survey. The unprecedented response revealed that there are indeed major problems with our current education policy and its impact on education practitioners.

Perhaps, the most startling revelation from the survey is what prompted it to be conducted in the first place – the increasing incidence of teachers and administrators who committed suicide due to bullying and abuses stemming from national school policy and other work place stressors. These are often the hidden casualties in the war on public education.

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. Publishing their names and ranking them according to their students’ test scores was supposed to encourage “reform”.

The Ruelas case is far from an isolated incident. Just last month, a New York City principal under investigation for altering Common Core test scores, killed herself by jumping in front of a subway car.

If U.S. teachers are the proverbial canary in the coalmine, then we may already be too late. Pressures related to high stakes testing are not the only stresses educators face. Teachers also reported significant bullying and hostility from city officials and administrators. Equally disturbing were reports concerning the infamous teacher jails where educators can languish for months under conditions, leaving them “broken, depressed,” and “suicidal, according to one California teacher observer. Statements recently made by New Jersey Governor and Republican Presidential Candidate Chris Christie reveals the scope of the problem. He said he would like to punch the national teachers union in the face. Rather than enjoying esteem as valued members of the communities they serve, educators have become convenient scapegoats. They fight on multiple fronts to provide their students a superior education and make a stable living.

It’s no wonder 73 percent of teachers in the Quality of Work Life Survey said they often find themselves stressed at work.

More than half of those surveyed, 55%, highlighted the “negative portrayal of teachers and school employees in the media” as a source of stress. The pejorative portrayal of teachers in a publication like The Atlantic is especially problematic. That a national periodical elected to do a piece on the survey but limit its scope to toilet restrictions trivializes other results. It’s not that this isn’t an important factor, but Wong’s coverage of other pertinent issues get short shrift. In her words educators tend to be, “known for their tendency to complain about and perhaps over-exaggerate their stress levels.”

To be fair, Wong eventually deleted that remark from subsequent editions of the article. However, she cautioned her readers to be skeptical of the survey because of potential bias. It’s a survey of teachers conducted by teachers. This is an odd critique however given the survey takers expressed intent to use the data collected as a means to spur the Department of Education to conduct a full scientific survey of the profession and then take appropriate action to rectify these concerns.

Rather than reporting squarely on the survey, Wong picked over the evidence. Rather than heeding the call that there is a real need for a much larger and more focused study of these problems, she either ignored or debunked its claims. Rather than treat educators as professionals, she belittled them.

Wong is not a bad journalist. Like most people, she has bought into the notion that teachers don’t know how good they have it. The public still doesn’t understand why teachers have “summers off.” They still misunderstand tenure to mean “a job for life” when it’s really only a guarantee of due process. Instead of helping the public better understand these issues, Wong and other representatives of the media often become entangled in the snare of the same myths.

Once again those entrusted with the most important job of preparing the next generation through our system of public education are losing a public relations campaign that can’t or won’t distinguish truth from falsity.

In short, our problems are much worse than inadequate bathroom time. We’re turning our public schools into factories and blaming teachers when it doesn’t work. We’re allowing billionaire philanthropists to set education policy but holding educators accountable for the results. We’re segregating our schools, providing Cadillac funding for the rich and bicycle funding for the poor and minorities but expecting teachers to somehow make up the difference. We’re letting corporate raiders run charter schools with no transparency or accountability and when that proves a disaster, we point our fingers at teachers. The result is a nation of frustrated educators who are increasingly leaving the profession in droves. “The average teacher,” writer Robert Brault once observed, “explains complexity” while “the gifted teacher reveals simplicity.” The data collected from the teacher survey reveals the complexity of the issues facing public education but they also highlight a simple truth. For if the survey is indeed accurate in illustrating just how debilitating these issues are to adults, we can only imagine what it’s doing to our children.

Yohuru Williams is an author, Dean, Professor of History and Black Studies, and education activist. Steven Singer is a husband, father, teacher, and blogger, education advocate. Both are members of the Badass Teachers Association.


NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association Blog.