For teachers and students, safe classrooms feel like a fairy tale

On my drive to work, I used to mentally rehearse my lesson plans. Now I rehearse the ‘run, hide, fight’ protocol.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

I once taught a shooter. He wrote me a scathing letter about my class a year before he murdered his mother and reportedly planned to attack the school.

During a safety training at my school, we were taught that if a student is trapped in the hall during a lockdown and they knock on the door pleading to come in, we must refuse them entry in case they are feigning fear to gain access. Would I have been able to make that emotional pivot after working for a year with the boy who killed his mom?

Alicia Wein (Courtesy photo)

I had spent that year trying to learn his vulnerabilities and passions, caring, pointing out his successes, and helping him unlock his writing from its stiff reserve. Would I have been able to turn away from him and register him not as a lover of history, an advocate for kids with disabilities, a beloved younger brother and only son, but merely as a threat? The idea alone breaks my heart.

Welcome to the mind of an educator in 2023, where lesson plans must jockey for space with the specter of gun violence. The news that a 6-year-old shot his teacher earlier this month in Newport News, Virginia, was just the latest disturbing reminder.

I remember when emergency preparedness in my classroom had nothing to do with violence. If a student asked me for something I didn’t have, I made sure I’d have it the next time. I filled a closet with tampons, band-aids, stain removers, duct tape, screwdrivers, hair ties, safety pins. If someone needed tape, it was a point of pride to reply, “carpet, book, scotch, or duct?” Students laughed and compared my room to Mary Poppins’ magical bag.

Now, they cheerfully say: “When we are in a lockdown, this is the room I want to be locked in!” I take this as a compliment, as it was intended. But 27 years into my career as an educator, I need to step back, breathe, and let myself be horrified by the implications of teaching against a backdrop of peril.

After a neighboring district went into lockdown due to a student threat, I spent 90 minutes of planning time emptying a second closet in the back of my room. Teacher friends told me what lockdown was like — the initial terror, and the five-and-a-half hour-long wait to be cleared from lockdown even after they knew they were safe. Attention turned from quieting anxiety to dealing with the physical discomfort of full bladders, thirst, and empty stomachs. They told me how they dug up snacks, shared water, and tried to negotiate a modicum of privacy when students had to urinate in the trash can.

In a department meeting, we made a plan to send gift baskets and well-wishes to those colleagues, then swapped ideas of how to mitigate a similar circumstance. I removed books and shelves and replaced them with lockdown supplies: glucose tablets and emergency blankets in case students go into shock, snacks and water bottles, and a red plastic bucket that students could use as a toilet during a long lockdown.

From my next paycheck, I will purchase kitty litter (for silencing streams of urine), a camping toilet seat that screws on the bucket, and a light to mount in the closet. There’s a pack of masks because if we have to huddle together, assuming we survive, we don’t want to catch COVID.

After my closet reorganization, I awoke in the night thinking I should bring old towels to school in case I ever needed to staunch bleeding, a circumstance for which I have zero training. On my drive to work, I used to mentally rehearse my lesson plans. Now I rehearse the “run, hide, fight” protocol.

‘When we are in a lockdown, this is the room I want to be locked in!’

At times this fall, I considered going on anti-anxiety medicine to address my stress level. At teacher training sessions, I wondered if I’d be better off hearing from experts on second-hand trauma and PTSD in soldiers. I ask my brother, who has over 20 years of experience as a sniper for Baltimore SWAT, for his advice about arranging my classroom furniture.

Teaching and learning, perhaps especially in a writing classroom like mine, are built on relationships, which depend on safety. My classroom works best as a protected space that fuels connection and vulnerability and helps students construct their understanding of their world and themselves. But now the looming fear of physical violence is throwing my classroom out of balance. With retirement a few years away, I’m increasingly skeptical that damage caused by fear in the classroom will ever be acknowledged, much less repaired.

Twenty-seven years into my teaching career, I still treat my students with tenderness. I remain friends with graduates and read their writing when it’s published outside school walls.

But this generation is internalizing the idea that being in public means putting your life in danger. For them, the idea of a safe classroom feels like the stuff of fairy tales. I don’t want to teach students that school is dangerous, but I fear I’m imparting that lesson through my own vigilance.

Abigail Zwerner, the Newport News teacher who was critically wounded by a 6-year-old in her class, was lauded in the news as a hero for clearing her room of students and asking about her students first when she woke in the hospital. Her actions are heroic, but we need to ask why they were necessary.

We have to resist perpetuating an understanding that constant physical peril is an acceptable way of life. We must speak up for legislation that funds infrastructure improvement, mental health support for students and educators, and reasonable gun control measures to keep weapons designed for murder out of the hands of children who can’t even get their driver’s licenses for another 10 years. We must refuse to let anyone tell educators to “fight back” without including specific instructions on how or allowing questions about why we are in danger to begin with.

Let dedicated educators restore an equilibrium in which we can expect more than to survive, and to be more than guardians of children’s bodies, more than stewards of this unacceptable new normal.

Alicia M. Wein is a secondary school English educator of 27 years, most taught at Guilderland Central School. She lives in Albany with her partner and beloved dogs, and is an avid reader, writer, and painter. She is especially interested in creating a school setting that allows for the inclusion of all students, and she works closely affiliated with The Capital District Writing Project. She is the 2023 recipient of the Bertha E. Brimmer Medal of Honor, a SUNY Excellence Award.