My students and I talk about gun violence. This week, I was out of words.

Back-to-back shootings, one a block from my Illinois house and another at a Tennessee elementary school, have me wondering how to support future teachers. 

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

After a weekend of violence in our rural Illinois town and nationally, I sat down with the students in my creative writing college class and tried to create a space for us to discuss where we’re at.

I am struggling, perhaps more than I’ve struggled before. I want to talk without breaking down crying about how on Friday, a man walked into a house party in our town, killing one person and injuring 10 others while dozens of college students and their friends ran for their lives. I mourn the traumas these students carry. I mourn the lives lost or broken. I mourn that this shooting happened a block from my house.

Freesia McKee (Sarah Ritter)

When my partner and I first moved to town two years ago, colleagues warned us not to move into this neighborhood. Too many students, they said. Too many loud parties. But being in community with students is one of the things I love about serving as a professor. I love being able to walk to work, seeing a former student waving to me out their car window, and showing up, my partner and I, as a visibly queer couple in this small town whenever we walk the dog. We’ve loved this neighborhood.

My partner and I spent this past weekend at home, listening to sirens with unusual frequency, gleaning scraps of information from city press conferences. I logged onto an app where people can post anonymous messages for others in their geographic area, though I realized quickly that the app served as a rumor mill, and the messages on it were often racist.

About 12 hours after the shooting, I sent an email to my students encouraging them to lean on their loved ones and reach out to those who support them, echoing the messages the school had sent everyone with links to the campus counseling center. Then, the school week started, and a person walked into an elementary school in Nashville and killed six people, including three 9-year-olds. I was out of words.

On Tuesday evening, after devoting the first few minutes of class to silent journaling, I invited students to share their reactions to the events of the past few days. I will admit that my wish was for hope, for solutions, and for a way forward.

Many of the students in the class are English education majors, meaning that they will start teaching their own classes at middle schools and high schools in just a couple of years. During our discussion, multiple students brought up the idea of a special class within the major devoted to dealing with active shooter situations. Students said that the risk of this happening to them as teachers “is not zero.” Maybe training would help.

Can we, in good conscience, train college students to become future English teachers, knowing that they may be subjected to murderous violence at work? 

Students said the vibe on our campus was different right now. Friend groups who were at the party were still processing how this could happen. Students connected the epidemic of gun violence with racism and climate change, and they complained that Congress is more focused on banning TikTok than on stopping the accumulating body counts in front of us.

The English education majors brought up that someday, they may have to make the decision whether to live or die for their students. I sat in front of them, my students, my beloved students, right in front of me, and I could not get my brain to register this question. Would I die for my students? I still can’t comprehend it, won’t allow myself to think it. I do not want to die for anyone. I want to live.

The question I was able to ask myself: Can we, in good conscience, train college students to become future English teachers, knowing that they may be subjected to murderous violence at work? And though I asked myself the question, I also know that there’s no realistic alternative to training teachers. Our society needs public education. Students deserve to be in classrooms taught by humans, not robots or AI. And yet, we shouldn’t be forced to love teaching so much that we are willing to die for it. This shouldn’t be the bar for who decides to remain in teaching and who decides to take cover somewhere else.

The reason the shooting in Macomb, Illinois, where I live and work, made only local news is that it was not on campus but in a neighborhood, even though it affected current and former students. The Covenant School shooting in Nashville made national news because it happened inside a school and involved the execution of 9-year-olds. Tragedies cannot be compared, but what I do think we need to remember is this: for every mass shooting we hear about, there are countless other acts of violence that make only the local news.

I am teaching members of a generation who look towards the future and see violence. This reality has felt so heavy for the last few days that I have not known how to do my job. I am worried especially about students who have shared their mental health challenges and fears of showing up in public spaces. What do I say to them? How do I support them?

When I take my daily walks in the neighborhood, I think about the conversations I have with students about their mental health, about their worries for the world, about who they wish to become. The past few days, my worries for my students have all but drowned me.

I do not want to care less. But to survive as a teacher, I may have to.

Freesia McKee (she/her) works as an instructor of English at Western Illinois University. In the fall of 2022, she served as the poet in residence at Ripon College.