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Weighty Decisions

Since Wednesday, February 14th, my social media outlets have been filled with responses to the tragic school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Some of these responses involve condolences and prayers; others critique the value of such expressions of sympathy. A few focus on our constitutional right to bear arms; others argue that gun ownership is tantamount to evil. Not surprisingly given the considerable number of teachers and professors in my network of friends, however, the majority of the posts I encountered while scrolling through my feeds expressed genuine fear—teachers’ fears for themselves and fears for their students.

And, of course, alongside these personal responses, I have read numerous article and opinion pieces attempting to frame this and similar tragedies as gun problems, mental health problems, cultural violence problems, and leadership problems. There are truths to each of these frames, but as a teacher, a writing program administrator, and a parent, I believe our nation is missing one of the most important parts of the conversation. We are not considering how teachers' day-to-day lives mean they realize that every decision they make about a student's welfare has the potential to result in violence.

I do not pretend to have an answer for deterring the senseless deaths and violence taking place in our schools. Nor am I under any illusions that I can intelligently answer the problem I have posed above. But I do think that we, as Americans, are ignoring a major portion of the conversation that needs to be had about why teachers are legitimately fearful, and I am hopeful that if we raise our voices, we can convince others that a parallel conversation needs to be taking place.

Our nation’s teachers are scared because they are charged with a responsibility that very few Americans consider or understand. On a daily basis, teachers are asked to make decisions that affect the lives and welfare of millions of students. Every time we decide to pass or fail a student, to write up behavioral complaints or choose to ignore them, to praise or to critique a student's work, to punish or to reward, we are being asked to reflectively weigh and balance students’ needs and the ramifications of our actions, and we are being asked to do so knowing that each of our students comes to us with different stories and varying amounts of privilege that mean they will likely react differently to our responses to them and to their work in our classes.

Let me phrase this differently. Nikolas Cruz’s teachers were charged with responding to a young man whose life’s story suggests moment after moment of disappointment and pain. They had to decide how and if to take this young man’s story and consider it every time they awarded him a grade, every time there was a complaint about his behavior, and when they finally had to decide whether or not he should be allowed to be a part of their school community. And every one of those teachers knew that each time they made a decision about this progress they could be slowly moving him toward some sort of personal or academic success or they could be inadvertently reinforcing the rejections and pain that likely resulted in the problems they were addressing.

Teachers in America do this Every. Single. Day.

This means that when a graduate instructor comes to me with questions about how to address concerns about a student in her class who is not being responsive, I have to acknowledge that somewhere in the back of her mind she is asking herself, what will happen if I fail this student? Will this be a student who is encouraged to try harder? Is this a student who will feel the system has failed them again and will dropout? Or is this the student who will respond in anger and frustration, and will these emotions lead him to react violently? And, finally, is this a student who has access to weapons that may mean this violence has deadly consequences?

This is what teaching means. It means reflectively weighing our words and our actions every single moment of every single day.

Yet our national narrative about school violence does not acknowledge the emotional labor and the weighty decisions with which our teachers are charged. We expect teachers to play the role of Solomon, making decisions on a daily basis that attempt to balance the needs of individual students and the needs of their classroom communities. Yes, there are articles, opinion pieces, and blogs about emotional labor. And, yes, there are discussions of the types of decisions teachers are expected to make. But we have separated these conversations from issues of school violence, and, in doing so, we are not supporting teachers and acknowledging the difficulties of their everyday-lived lives. The teaching life is one of wrestling words, navigating texts, contemplating interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships, and weighing decisions.

Our cultural narrative needs to recognize this fact; and in times of quiet and in times of crisis, we need to acknowledge that our refusal to have thoughtful discussions about gun laws, mental health, and cultural violence mean that many of our teachers are afraid—afraid to enter their classrooms because they know the decisions they make carry a weight that most cannot imagine.

There are nights I am unable to sleep as I ponder the effects of my words and decisions, and there are nights I cannot sleep because I worry about whether or not I am mentoring new teachers effectively. We need to reconsider our current conversations. We need to acknowledge the difficulties of the decisions made by our teachers in the trenches every day, and unless we have the conversations that must take place in order for teachers to have more peace of mind, we are leaving out the voices whose decisions literally matter most to the lives of our students.

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