Teachers with Guns

In the wake of the shootings in Parkland, Florida, I have watched an idea growing. It's an idea that has been raised before, but never in as much earnest as in recent days, and certainly never by anyone sitting in the White House. It's the idea of arming schoolteachers. And it's an idea that is, um, not good.

I suppose it's not ridiculous on its face. There is the old cliche "Fight fire with fire," and it is demonstrably true that firefighters will control wildfires by creating firebreaks--in other words, by deliberately burning sections of forest in order to prevent the uncontrolled wildfire from moving through that area. But firebreaks are created by professional firefighters with an overall strategic plan for combating wildfires; we don't simply hand out matches to every hiker in the forest and tell them, "If an arsonist shows up, you better be ready to light those things." So how is the idea of giving teachers guns likely to solve the problem of gunmen in schools?

Let's establish at the outset that I am not a gun enthusiast. I don't hunt. I've never been in the military. I haven't even taken a shot at a target in several decades. But for all that, I've lived around guns most of my life. My father was both a Marine reservist and a hunter, so there were guns in the house throughout my childhood; I still remember Dad showing me where his service piece was stored in his closet and pointedly instructing me that I was under no circumstances ever to touch it without his supervision. I believe I had just turned thirteen. A few years later he took me and my brother out to the military target range near Butner to fire some weapons, including both the service pistol and a semi-automatic M16. (Dad has considered the likely models and believes this is accurate.) To say I was impressed by these weapons' power is an understatement; even four decades later, my respect for the destructive capabilities I saw (and felt) from these ordinary firearms is enormous--and no, I never went anywhere Dad's service piece.

After I left home, I lived for four years in Fayetteville, NC--home of Fort Bragg. Not only did my neighbors routinely have weapons at home (and often on their persons), but I routinely went to sleep with the sound of a turkey shoot going on roughly a mile away. (It was a couple of weeks before I asked Kelly what the hell that noise was every night, and why the cops didn't seem to pay any attention to it.) When we moved to Woodberry Forest in 1995, we moved to one of the only schools on earth where students are allowed to have guns. Not only does WFS have a skeet range (and skeet team), but hunting happens regularly on campus. Students must store their guns in the school's gun room, but it was a common thing for me to meet armed young men wandering back from the school's woodlands or fields, and the sound of gunfire was audible most weekends.

In other words, I am not a gun enthusiast, but I am also not unfamiliar with guns, or the people who use them, or the purposes for which they are used.

More important for this discussion, however, is that I am intimately familiar with schools.

Since 1969, I have spent exactly one year of my life outside of schools. If I wasn't attending one (1969-1989), I was working at one (1990-present), except for the year 1986, when I was grading standardized essay tests and applying to master's degree programs, so it's not like I spent the year avoiding the field of education. I've worked in both public and private schools, day and boarding schools, coed and single-sex schools, urban and rural schools, middle and high schools. In short, given that half-century of experience (and even ignoring my Master of Arts in Teaching, not to mention a certain family tradition of working in the field of education, one that includes my grandfather, father, and brother, not to mention a passel of cousins, aunts, and uncles), I feel pretty confident in opining about issues in education.

And arming teachers is a bad idea.

I've read estimates that a typical teacher must make at least 1500 decisions in the course of a typical class. These include decisions about phrasing a question (which words to use, which to avoid, which concepts to focus on, which to elide for the moment, etc.), directing a question (which student has a hand raised, whether Student A has answered a question more recently than Student B, whether Student A's past behavior makes him likely to have the answer or more likely to be making a joke, whether the mood of the class is such that a joke might actually advance the discussion, whether Student B's past behavior suggests that getting an answer wrong would produce emotional distress, and how likely it might be that THIS answer is wrong, etc.), responding to an answer (how accurate the answer is, how complete the answer is, whether the answer builds on or contradicts a previous answer, how to dignifiy the response in order to encourage the student to participate, etc.) and plenty of others. And all these decisions have to be made EVERY TIME YOU ASK A QUESTION.

The fact that most veteran teachers have internalized the process of making these decisions doesn't mean the process isn't ongoing. Basically, the teacher is a conductor, working with a score that is supposed to sound a certain way, and the students are the various members of the orchestra, making noises that might or might not be in sync with the score in front of them. The teacher must simultaneously listen to the ensemble and pay attention to both each individual sound and the player making it. It is, if done correctly, an enormously complicated task, and one that requires the conductor's full attention.

And now the conductor is also being asked to keep a handgun on his music stand and be ready to lay down suppressing fire if someone in the audience produces an AR-15.

Arming teachers is a bad idea.

I would be a terrible, terrible Marine. When I had the option of applying for an ROTC scholarship, I gently broke it to my father that neither my bad knees or my bad eyesight were likely to pass muster with the admissions board, but I think we both knew that my knees and eyes were still far better than my marksmanship and my temperament. That's one of the main reasons I chose not to go into a field that requires me to wield a weapon and respond to orders instantly. But I would argue that I am likely more familiar with firearms than many of my colleagues. And I would further note that I, like most of you, had past encounters with a number of teachers whose in-class behavior suggests that they would not be safe, responsible wielders of the weapons we're discussing. They might be able to return fire effectively if a gunman were to appear, sure, but how often would that occur in comparison to the number of times they might forget to lock up their classroom weapon, or leave the weapon on their desk by accident, or god forbid feel threatened and take up that weapon against a student?

In short, I will not be taking up arms in my classroom. If instructed to do so by my employer, I will resign. If required to do so by law, I will leave the profession. And I will not be the only educator doing so.

Basically, if you try to make teachers become armed guards, you're going to end up having to train a lot of armed guards to teach.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on February 24, 2018 11:09 AM.

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