As a teacher, I am allowed much less latitude in my day to day existence then the average person who is not a teacher – (no actual education experience yet has a college degree, may be a parent, after school provider service, baby sitter, etc). This lack of latitude is not a problem, rather it presents a unique dilemma. Society expects me (with my nifty CA State Teaching Credential) to act differently and generally better so I have little wiggle room if something goes wrong. As a science teacher, I can tell you, up front and honestly, ‘Things go wrong’ and so I do all I can for reasonable risk assessment in an attempt to avoid the ‘something going wrong’ starting small and becoming HUGE. Adam Lanza went wrong. Come to think of it, so did NECC (New England Compounding Center).
When I have had to deal with work colleagues, administrators, parents, etc., about avoiding problems, the mantra I most often hear is, ‘Well we have been doing it this way for ______ (pick your amount of time) and have not had a problem’. The second most often heard mantra is, ‘We have a license, degree, certificate…..’. My favorite mantra: ‘Kids don’t come with operating instructions’.
I want to roll my eyes as mantra one means we can’t/won’t/are afraid to change. Mantra two indicates abdication. My favorite mantra translates into lack of use of common sense and/or asking for help.
When something goes wrong, these mantras never hold up with talking to parents, police, doctors, etc. These mantras do have the capacity to help some one feel better about the lapses and excuse ineptitude, which is why we have lawyers and insurance. These mantras allow people to feel okay about not being a functioning member of their family, work colleagues, group of friends and community.
We are a society so separated from reality we expect others to take responsibility for everything from poor parenting to bad grades to bad behavior. When something bad happens, we console ourselves with the concept we ‘did the best we could’ and immediately start looking where to point blame.
I have to ask – did you really do the best you could? Were you afraid in some way and so you chose to take the easier path?
Were you putting some self interest in front of your job/relationship with another person(I can’t deal with lunatic parent B so I will just give the kid a C and call it a day – even though the kid has some serious learning and behavior problems; I have to have enrollment numbers up so I will accept whatever kids come to my program; I was afraid to address parent Q their child has behavior X consistently and it is not benefitting their age/play mates; Just this once I can let it slide – it will keep everything calm and so on) and did not step it up?
Anything in science ‘lab’ can become dangerous under the wrong circumstances so we practice, practice, practice-we practice how to use particular tools correctly, who gets to pick up broken glass (ME and any other adult only), how to stop, drop and roll (we light candles and peanuts for experiments some times), how to walk around a puddle. We talk about why, at the end of the day, it is quite important I return children to their parents in the same or better (they learn something and maybe grow a gyri on the brain!) condition and I have told them I really never wish to have to call a parent from the ER.
I am strict. My students need to demonstrate they know how to WALK with scissors pointed downward….and this is at all age levels. We learn how to position a butter knife (blunt edge) since with enough force, even a butter knife is dangerous. I have explained that while I would do anything I could to keep them alive, I don’t feel like doing open heart surgery today so they must walk with scissors AND they must walk and HOLD scissors a particular way. Knives and tools requiring use of ‘force’ must be pushed away from body for proper use. Fortunately for me I have not had to do heart surgery – I have had to deal with ripped clothing, scissors falling just shy of puncturing a toe as child wore sandals, scissors being used in wrong direction (don’t ask me how the child was able to do this to try and unplug the glue bottle) and kid getting cut on hand, etc.
In the case of Nancy Lanza, the story unfolded all too sadly after the fact. Apparently she practiced my favorite mantra and the most often heard mantra about having a license (for anything, as if this makes you invisible from harm, most especially a license for a gun). Not only did Mrs. Lanza practice one of the mantras, her so called friends aided, abetted and abided in the mantras. After Friday 14 December 2012 people began to blame the NRA (yet, Mrs. Lanza had a license). People were able to construct a bit of a story about Mrs. Lanza – she was generous with money yet never managed to talk about one son. Mrs. Lanza does not seem to have any ‘close’ friends or they sure are not talking. People confused Mrs. Lanza as a teacher. People knew Adam was different (interestingly, kids can always tell when some one is different even though they may not have words for the ‘different’) and yet apparently his different was ‘normal’ – AND THEN IT WAS NOT.
Some one was afraid to use the tool of truth and sincerity.
The methodology of CAREFULNESS rules what I do. I have substantially more to lose for a ‘mistake’, no matter how well intentioned I was in avoiding the mistake. My choices are public (they occur in a classroom for all to see and hear), my choices are constantly what parents talk about. My choices supposedly have more impact on a child then anything their parents could/should do…….
The higher standard is sometimes frightening and often frustrating. I can lose my credential in the blink of an eye if a child is hurt or some stranger abducts a child under my care (even if the child stated they ‘knew’ the person since a child’s knowing is distinctly different from an adult knowing) even if I told two kids to go to the bathroom together, I am expected to have eyes on the back of my head and a third eye at all times. The same behavior is not required/expected of a parent – something going ‘south’ would be called an accident. Adam Lanza’s behavior was apparently an accident since no one seemed to see it coming and yet it seems all the signs were there and the signs were pretty blinding neon, most especially having an interest in guns and sharing guns with a child as a demonstration of responsibility.
Since my livelihood depends on how well I can inculcate the use of particular tools, I am careful to note the following:
Bleach – great for sanitizing. Five drops in a gallon of water is good stuff when there is no clean water. A child drinking bleach left below the kitchen sink is deadly. Scissors – awesome for arts and crafts. Kitchen scissors can be used to cut chicken bones. Falling on scissors can cause blindness, puncture wounds, death. Pencil – great for writing on paper and drawing. Flung across the room, can cause blindness. http://www.cnn.com/video/?hpt=hp_c3#/video/us/2013/01/25/dnt-pencil-spears-tot-in-the-eye.whdh Rubber band – wonderful for making a model airplane propeller turn. Horrific is shot to the face. Minimally painful if it hits a tender part of the body. Needle – great tool for sewing on a button, getting glue stuck in neck of glue bottle, making a tiny hole to demonstrate starlight in a black piece of paper. Completely dangerous on many levels up to and including carrying germs so we should not even use it to pretend we have magnetic skin. Magnets – wonderful for holding things to refrigerator. Great for an MRI which can help in doing a medical diagnosis. Terribly bad when swallowed by children and the magnets bind in the gut.
The above are just the minimum of issues I deal with as a teacher. Add on taking students on a field trip where the generally accepted standard is 6-10 children per adult (and many times the adults act like children). Add on being distracted for one second by a child who does not understand the word NO is indeed A COMPLETE SENTENCE when stated by an adult and you start to get a tiny view of my world.
When children act out, I am clear in communicating with parents and administrators regarding what happened as I just watched my life pass before my eyes and that of the children I am in charge of. I do not have a ‘free pass’ – ever. I am not unempathetic, I am honest, sincere and don’t let acting out pass for the ‘next time’. This is known as the practice of behaviorism – catching it when it happens, addressing it and moving forward instead of letting the behavior go and become a routine.
This methodical approach applies to not only all tools above but the speaking tool in human relationships with family and friends.
In the same way I would state guns are a tool (air BB pellet guns at summer camp for target practice, hunting, use on big game drives in Africa), and require extraordinary care in use, I would state honesty and telling the truth to parents, friends and family is so important when something is ‘amiss’.
Tools and truth are a safety issue – improper use of a tool can have some unintended consequences and outcomes. Improper use of truth (protecting some one from feeling hurt, their self esteem tapped, etc.) does not help people seek help/services/support before something unforeseen happens. We need to treat our relationships the same way we would demonstrate respect for a tool – practice telling some one something is wrong and share how to get help; report a problem to the police (the converse of this is not ‘snitching’ and we all know how this works in neighborhoods with gangs), follow up and practice again; check things out every now and again to make sure things are in good operating condition – especially your relationships. Don’t let being politically correct stop you from being ACTUALLY CORRECT. If you have that ‘feeling’ inside of something being amiss, talk to your friend, their family members, etc. Report what you think is amiss- your internal gut is more accurate then you realize (Gary Zukov, The Seat of The Soul).
I have never seen cops at a shooting range practice without goggles and ear mufflers. I am not condoning guns although I support the idea that if you have a gun, you should at a minimum know how to use it and store it appropriately. This is what leads me to state that guns in and of themselves are not inherently dangerous, rather the people using them are dangerous.
People without care or thought or an understanding of risk management have difficulty imagining the horror of everyday items in the house. Liza Long noted this in her piece above. People with problems of mental and behavioral health issues are not inherently dangerous – rather the people who have mental/behavioral problems tend to have a proclivity to be dangerous for a variety of reasons. Not saying something to the person or their adult care taker due to the impoliteness factor is dangerous. You have a tool (your brain) to think through information, analyze the information and share if something is not making sense.
When you get down to it, a teacher should not be different from anyone else. A teacher should be respected for noting when something is amiss in equal proportion to when they note something is awesome and wonderful. A teacher should be appreciated for honesty when it comes to children. Generally this is not the case as there is no nice way to tell the truth about something being amiss. If this were the actual case, some one somewhere in a small place called Newtown, CT would have rung a warning bell about Nancy Lanza, her relationship with guns and her son who was different and perhaps should not (in retrospect) have been shown how to shoot guns. Some one at the college where Adam attended or a friend of Nancy’s who had kids themselves should have noted something was incongruous and at a minimum, contacted the police as a ‘heads up’ and let the police follow up. It seems both Nancy and Adam had a unique relationship with schools.
The danger is not the ‘tool’ – the danger is in not knowing how to use a tool – any tool, not practicing enough and expecting a better outcome than if you actually made the attempt to thoughtful and careful about all tools, including the SPEAKING UP tool. Speak up instead of being surprised.