Taking a bullet: one more injustice teachers must suffer
Who will be left to educate America’s children when all the teachers have had enough?
Who will remain when educators tire of picking their way through a political obstacles course of ginned-up outrage over bathrooms and manufactured controversies about racial justice? Who will be there when all the good-hearted, well-intentioned teachers finally become fed up with being lambasted by the Left and the Right for what amounts to simple human imperfection?
What will happen when teachers are no longer there to provide the school supplies, the warm clothing, the extra snack, the safe space for the children who fall through the country's flimsy social safety net? Who will be there to notice the bruises? Or to hear the worrisome silences? Or to recognise the artist amid the engineers?
Who will educate children when teachers finally become fed up with dodging bullets — or taking bullets — in service to someone else's child? What will happen when teachers can no longer be heroic?
These are the questions that come to mind in the days after the shooting of a teacher at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia. The person accused of pulling the trigger of the 9mm gun that injured Abigail Zwerner, 25, is her six-year-old student. Police have said that the gun was lawfully purchased by the child’s mother, that the child brought it to school and that the shooting was “intentional”, which is to say that the child actually pulled the trigger and didn’t somehow drop the weapon and it indiscriminately fired. Beyond that, what does it even mean to say that a six-year-old child’s act of grievous gun violence was intentional when intent can be difficult to discern in an adult, let alone a mind still in thrall to Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy?
After the single bullet hit Zwerner in the hand and chest, she still had her students front of mind. According to the police, she ensured that they were out of harm’s way before she made her way to the front office and collapsed. “Ms Zwerner was the last person to leave that class,” the police chief said. “She made a right turn and started down the hallway and then she stopped. She turned around to make sure every one of those students was safe.”
But how much longer can the country expect teachers to be that selfless? It is no secret that they are underpaid for all the duties they perform. The average public school teacher’s salary in the United States is about $66,000. They should be paid more. They should be paid more. They should be paid more. The country went through a brief phase of teacher worship when schools were shut down because of the pandemic and parents were left to wrangle their children on their own. After parents logged their homebound children into virtual classrooms, they were able to bear witness to the kind of patience, calm, empathy and determination that is required of teachers on a daily basis. Parents expressed their heightened respect for teachers. They oozed thankfulness.
And then the schools reopened. Parents quickly recovered from the shock of dealing with their own children all day. They began to harangue teachers with a new-found gusto. They forced teachers to fend off accusations that they were teaching critical race theory when they were really just trying to get someone’s recalcitrant child to understand that racism has consequences. School boards began putting restrictions on how teachers discuss gender, in essence asking teachers to tamp down their sense of empathy and muzzle efforts at inclusion. School districts began banning books and narrowing children’s vision even as they demanded that teachers prepare students for a more complex and competitive world.
The US has lost 370,000 teachers since the start of the pandemic. And yet the teachers that remain continue to do those things that prompt police officers to call them heroic and that have parents compliment their ability to treat every student like an individual rather than an anonymous seat-filler. Teachers continue to speak up even when doing so can cost them their job for reasons that completely blindside them.
A parent at Richneck Elementary School recalled how Zwerner left notes of encouragement in her son’s backpack and noticed when he was out-of-sorts because of family upheaval. When the three student-athletes at the University of Virginia were shot and killed last November, a professor who had had two of them in class used social media to share stories about their good humour, intellectual curiosity and empathy. In Uvalde, Texas, teachers consoled students when law enforcement went missing. Students continue to have favourite teachers because teachers continue to form bonds with their pupils even as legislators seem intent on transforming those relationships into little more than rote transactions. Teachers persist in caring.
There are disinterested, inflexible and unprofessional teachers — same as in any field. But it does seem as though society has been making the work lives of teachers exceptionally difficult. Critics have been punching at them from all sides. The country asks public school teachers to carry the country’s future on their backs and then we force them to walk through a field of landmines. And as explosions go off all around them, teachers keep pressing forward because they have faith in the future.
When people talk about children, they have a tendency to introduce their comments with the phrase: as a parent. They say this as a way of adding heft to their opinion, as a way of announcing that they have intimate experience in the ways of children, as a way of proclaiming that they have certain inviolable rights. All of this is fair. But a non-parent’s point of view has importance, too. They have the capacity to see a child, not in the context of a beloved offspring and pride of the family, but as part of the broader society, as someone who will grow to be a neighbour, a colleague, a citizen.
Teachers help children make that transition in ways that parents oftentimes cannot. It may be natural that there is friction in the relationship between parents and teachers. If a parent helps a child discover themselves, a teacher helps them figure out how that self-defined person fits into the world.
When teachers have had enough, it will all fall to pieces. And already, the teachers have suffered and endured plenty.
• Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press