Teachers have been in the news again this school year. However, this time, the stories are not about standardized test scores, teacher preparation programs, or accountability measures. This time, teachers are in the news as something they would never call themselves: Heroes.
In the fall, a gunman brought unspeakable tragedy to our community in nearby Newtown, Connecticut at Sandy Hook Elementary School. This shooting joins Columbine and Virginia Tech as the deadliest school shootings in the last 13 years. If you are like me, these shootings have captured your attention for a brief, albeit intense, period of time, before sadly fading to the background of daily distraction. Thus, I was shocked to learn that during the four months following the Newtown tragedy, 11 other shootings have taken place on school or university campuses. Human cruelty can leave us terrified of one another and feeling disconnected and hopeless about the state of our society. Yet human cruelty is only one part of these stories…there is hope thankfully in something else we must learn to see.
Words of Wisdom
When searching for comfort in the hours and days following the Newtown shooting, the following quote from Fred “Mr.” Rogers was sent to me by a kind soul:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world. … If you look for the helpers, you will know there is hope.”
In the last few months, teachers have been helpers in ways that they could not have imagined. And yet to be the helper, is to face a choice: Should I help? Can I help? Or as many have asked–How can I help? Teachers found themselves to truly be the first responders during the shooting by removing children from harm, talking to them calmly and with compassion, and shielding them with their very lives.
Facing a Choice
We too are faced with a choice. In this case not what we would do, but rather how we will think about the tragedy. Mr Rogers’ mother was right–there were so many helpers we can look to! So, I choose to remember the helpers instead of the inflictor. I choose to remember Kaitlin Roig, who told her students over and over that she loved them. Sharing later that, “I wanted them to know that someone loved them and I wanted that to be one of the last things they heard, not the gunfire in the hallway.” In the most extraordinary of circumstances, the helper–the teacher–chose love as her message. How can we not draw a full measure of hope from this selfless act?
Little Choices Lead to Larger Ones
How would any of us act during any of the horrible situations faced recently? May we never know! Yet I cannot help but believe, hope really, that heroism lies in the little things too. The practiced art of teacher devotion made in a thousand little acts:
Arriving early to school to unlock the gym, providing extra instruction, serving hot breakfast to hungry kids. Burning the midnight oil creating assignments (and then grading them!), worrying over a student, or planning to each day meet the various needs of each child. Holding the door for the next person and holding the hand of a colleague who has lost someone. Leading an afterschool club or creating a new one or attending a student’s game after school. Learning how to use social media to stay in touch with students whose learning in such ways is far out pacing their own. Organizing a gathering of colleagues after work to provide mutual support, blow off steam, and laugh about nothing at all. Thinking you have lost your patience with a student, and then finding just a little bit more. Teaching something 10 different ways, and when that doesn’t work, exploring another (and another!). Researching new accommodations and finding ways to enhance learning to reach each child. And so in the little things we choose to do, we are practicing the larger ones.
Tragedy Again, Choice Again
As I close, I am reminded that only a week ago tragedy struck again. This time in Oklahoma, and specifically at the Plaza in Moore, OK. Cruelty this time was manifest in a tornado, and the tragic loss of life including students at a nearby school. Yet once again, among the tragedy, we see the helpers. We find stories of teachers honoring us all through their heroic choices.
As a new parent, I see that for 13 years, teachers will shape the development of my son. I see teachers with a staggering amount of responsibility to safeguard those we love the most. To create a learning environment that is free of bullying and cruelty, enriching and engaging for learning, and (we pray) physically safe for our children. I know that in the months ahead we will likely return to questions about high stakes tests, traditional vs. alternative certification, and teacher accountability. Policy will naturally focus on issues of gun safety, bullying, and mental illness. But I also hope we return to the image of teachers from my childhood. Not the “those who can…” image portrayed in film and television, or played up in the media, but the image of teachers as difference makers, nurturers, leaders, helpers and heroes. That is who I want spending precious time with my son. I think that is what we all want.
We have a lot that can be fixed in education, of that there is little doubt. But I hope that teachers hold their head a little higher across the country, as what it means to be a teacher is once again, a wonderful thing. Teachers have chosen to be helpers. That is who they are, that is what we need, and that is what gives me hope.
Dr. Faggella-Luby is an Associate Professor of Special Education in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut (UConn). He is also a research scientist at the Center for Behavioral Education and Research (CBER) and an associate research scholar at the Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability (CPED).
Dr. Faggella-Luby teaches courses related to preparing educators to evaluate, select, plan, and implement research-based methods and instructional materials for teaching students with and without disabilities who are at risk for failure. His scholarly interests focus on learning disabilities, literacy, reading education, special education, diverse learning needs, instructional design, secondary education, and school reform. He has written publications related to cognitive learning strategies, response-to-intervention (RtI)/scientifically research-based instruction (SRBI), self-determination, literacy, and urban school reform. Dr. Faggella-Luby’s primary research interest focuses on embedding instruction in learning strategies into subject-area courses to improve reading comprehension for all levels of learners.
He received the 2006 Outstanding Researcher Award from the Council for Learning Disabilities and the 2007 Annual Dissertation Award from CEC’s Division of Learning Disabilities for his dissertation study Embedded Learning Strategy Instruction: Story-Structure Pedagogy in Secondary Classes for Diverse Learners. Before joining the faculty at University of Connecticut, Dr. Faggella-Luby was a doctoral fellow at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning under the direction of Drs. Donald Deshler and Jean Schumaker. He earned his doctorate from the Special Education Department at the University of Kansas. Dr. Faggella-Luby is a former high school administrator and teacher of both English and Chemistry.