“It’s a very disturbing time to be a teacher,” my cousin, a second-grade teacher, tells me on the phone a day after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.
This isn’t a new feeling for her. There have been over 60 school shootings with fatalities since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in late 2012, a shooting that reignited the post-Columbine national conversation about the Second Amendment and how to protect the lives of students and teachers.
Following the Florida school shooting, young people have been advocating for their fallen friends and the lives of all students. Teenage activists like Emma Gonzalez are confronting the politicians stalling gun regulation directly with their stories and anger. They’re questioning lawmakers and the NRA. Mass student walkouts are being organized around the country. They’re taking to social media to speak their truth.
Amid all the fervent action, however, a dark anxiety hangs overhead as those in favor of gun regulation fight for their concerns to be recognized in policy.
I spoke to teachers from school districts of varying political leanings, income and race demographics about their students’ reactions, their conversations among colleagues and the steps they hope our government will take. I spoke to young teachers who are still assistants and retired teachers with over 50 years of experience. Not one said that they felt their students and coworkers were fully safe at school today.
Note: Many identifying details, including names, have been changed due to school policy and personal preference.
In the wake of so many school shootings in recent memory, what have been your students’ reactions?
Jade: Not a week goes by without a student asking the “What would we do if … ?” question. They want to know if I’d save them. If we’d run. If we’d hide. If we’d follow protocol. If I’d let them grab their cell phones before going into lockdown. These are not the questions I expected to be focusing on as a teacher.
Robin: They blame Trump.
Connie: I used to think that there’s been no conversation in the classroom because my students are young and mostly on the spectrum. I’ve come to think, however, that school shootings just aren’t shocking anymore.
Nick: I remember when Sandy Hook happened. I had to comfort students for weeks. And they could just tell something was off — it was hard to keep that news from reaching them. These days, it all passes so quickly.
Marybeth: Some seem nervous; others don’t seem particularly impacted. They do want to talk about it, which I think is important, but our school doesn’t want us discussing it with them.
Tammy: After every shooting, my students ask me what would happen if there were a shooter at our school. They are terrified that this will happen to them.
Rachel: “Miss, if someone comes in here, we’re kind of screwed, huh?” They were respectful of the moment of silence this time — though with multiple moments of silence each year, I do think they’re becoming desensitized to those, too.
Lindsey: The only reaction I heard from a student after the Florida shooting was one boy saying that it was lucky that “only 17 people died.”
What has the conversation among your coworkers been like in the wake of these events?
Carrie: The teacher next to my classroom got [to school] early with me and we made a plan together about what we would do. We checked to make sure our windows would open. We put tables close to doors to barricade us in the rooms and we put curtains over the windows by our doors.
Jade: Being a teacher often means suppressing or stifling your own personal political views. Lately, we’ve been talking about how proud we are of Emma Gonzalez and these beautiful, bold students, survivors [and] speakers who are turning their grief into action. What she is doing is the ultimate “end goal” I have as a teacher for my students.
Rachel: Honestly, I tried to tune most of it out; I’ve found that the only way I’m really able to function and get through my days is by ignoring it as much as possible. I catch the salient details from the headlines, but I can’t allow myself to “go there” by watching video[s] or reading testimon[ies]. It’s my own form of self-care and self-preservation. I know that there are some who view that kind of approach as selfish or privileged, but if I’m expected to function in my classroom daily, then I can’t allow myself to go there mentally or emotionally.
Krystal: Unfortunately, these days everything is so politicized that you have to tread lightly when talking about anything. We all agree that these kinds of events cannot continue to happen, but not everyone agrees on what the problem actually is.
Diane: The conversation has been focused on what actions we can take and what groups we can join.
Elizabeth: It’s just really been a lot of head shaking, not so many words.
What actions would you like to see the government take to prevent further school shootings?
Rachel: No military-grade weapons, no bump stocks, significantly increased licensing requirements, monitoring ammunition quantity. I think that some of these “common sense” gun control regulations are just that: common sense. I don’t see how that’s infringing on anyone’s rights any more than having to get a driver’s license to drive or taking your shoes off at the airport.
Kimberly: I would like to see the government ban all semi-automatic weapons and put into place stricter background checks for all legal firearms, because the “good guys” shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Right?
John: I think we should follow the example of Britain and Australia where they banned assault weapons and made it very difficult to buy a gun without multiple levels of training [and] waiting periods.
Stef: My opinion on guns is that no one should have them. Realistically, I would like to see [the government] make it as hard to buy a gun in this country as possible. It needs to go beyond two pieces of paper and a background check.
Elizabeth: It’s really about starting early: Includ[ing] social-emotional components in curriculum from K-12, teaching them how to speak to each other and how to express your feelings, and that it’s okay to have feelings.
Marybeth: I don’t think we can make it a one-issue thing. It’s not that simple.
Connie: Of course mental health needs to be addressed, but our government has been steadily reducing our access to care, not increasing it.
Candine: I think we should enforce political term limits, with a maximum of 12 years in Congress. [We should also] make it illegal for lobbies to pay, donate, [or] give away anything to congressional members so these reps will endorse and vote that group’s agenda.
Have you or your coworkers had a dialogue with parents on this issue? If so, what’s been the response?
Marybeth: We are urged (and instructed) not to discuss anything with parents or students.
Nick: There just hasn’t been time. We’re always open to dialogue, but honestly, other things have been on our parents’ minds lately. Many of them may lose their Temporary Protective Status within the next few years.
Tammy: Parents know that we have safety measures in place.
Candine: We do have a group of NRA supporters who scream, “THEY’RE NOT TAKING MY GUNS AWAY FROM ME!” When I hear the gun supporters talk, they rant about, “I gotta protect my family.” My question is: “Protect them from what?”
Jade: I have seen several parents demand that “someone” do something. Schools need to do something. The government needs to do something. My response: We all need to do something. Don’t just expect “someone” to fix this problem.
Are there lockdown drills at your school? What do they entail?
Elizabeth: Basically, an announcement comes over the loudspeaker and I get my students low to the ground and out of sight from any openings. Admin goes around trying to “get in” to classrooms.
Marybeth: We lock the door, turn off the lights and try to place students in a part of the room that is not visible from the door.
Rachel: A few years ago we switched from the old “lockdown” procedure to the ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) procedure. They usually involve three different scenarios so that we can practice — evacuating, barricading and countering.
Evacuating is similar to a fire drill: If you are safely able to do so, get out. Barricading is used if there’s someone in your area but not yet in your room. You lock and block your door(s). The third scenario is Countering, and it’s based on the research that if shooters aren’t able to aim, then fatalities are reduced. If an intruder breaks through our barricade, we just throw things at them.
Connie: Everyone covers the windows and ducks out of view with 25 fourth graders who are trying so hard to be quiet, until someone farts and then there’s no hope. It was a scary sort of game for them, but for me, it was just scary — thinking about what I would do, what I would have to do as their teacher.
Nick: There’s been an emerging philosophy of common sense, meaning [that] if you think you can get away, then try [to] run. This is fairly new and isn’t directly embraced by the schools.
Casey: No. Perhaps naively, none of us can really see this happening at our school, carried out by one of our students.
Erica: The roof of the gymnasium is outside of our window and I [have] already told the students that if something happens for real… I am having each of them jump out the window and onto the roof. I’m taking matters into my own hands because I feel that if this situation ever does happen, I’m responsible.
Jay: My classroom is on the first floor in front of big, open windows. I’d be lying if I said I thought this method was 100% safe.
Ellen: The kids giggle, and they also get scared. That’s probably the most time we talk about school shootings. Multiple children have asked me would I die for them. I always say yes. It’s not a question.
How do you feel at work after these events?
Stef: I think a lot of young teachers like me are coming into the profession understanding our lives could one day be at risk, and that’s such a messed up thing to have to reconcile.
Elizabeth: I worry. What if this kid that I had to give a consequence to or have a difficult talk with isn’t having it? I’ve had nightmares; I’ve stressed about things I shouldn’t have to think about.
Marybeth: I feel like I need to be wary of everyone, which can make it hard to focus.
Laura: After my coworker was killed [in a shooting outside our school], I felt calm at school when I had to take care of the students, but very stressed and nervous anywhere else for a couple of weeks. [I’m] often just frustrated and cynical that I don’t think this will change.
Jade: I feel like we’re being held hostage by fear. I also feel like I’m being held hostage by the taboo of a teacher discussing “politics.” Shouldn’t I be allowed to share my opinions on my safety and my students’ safety?
Kimberly: I wear my classroom key around my neck instead of keeping it in my desk in case I have to act in a split second.
Nick: I feel like people expect teachers to lay their lives on the lines — and any of us would to protect our kids. But it’s such an unfair expectation heaved upon an already overburdened and overworked community of professionals.
Jay: I want to say I feel safe because it wouldn’t happen in a school like mine, but that feels a little bit naive now.
What are your thoughts on the NRA’s suggestion to arm teachers?
Krystal: What an insulting idea.
Tammy: I don’t get funding to pay for Expo markers, let alone an assault rifle or training to shoot and kill someone. We agree that we would do anything to protect our kids, but … arming teachers won’t help the situation.
Rachel: The day I’m told I have to keep a gun in my classroom is the day I will leave this profession. I’ve accepted that someday my job may now involve jumping in front of a bullet, but I absolutely refuse to allow my job to become one where I have to fire that bullet. Especially if it’s at a student.
Jade: Having guns in the classroom provides access to guns for ALL students. Access to guns is the major contributing factor to these tragedies. Stop the guns from getting into my school or in my students’ hands. Stop trying to put one in mine.
Tammy: I would do anything for my students. This being said, I shouldn’t have to think about defending their lives. I should be thinking about how to improve their futures.
Are you in support of the scheduled student walkouts? What do you hope will be accomplished by this? What do your kids say about it?
Robin: I’m in total support of the walkout if it’s well-organized and has a purpose. The only way it can be effective is if the momentum continues and… there is a real, aggressive nationwide push for change.
Stef: I’m a social justice activist and my curriculum is centered around social justice issues, so I’m hoping my kids participate, honestly.
Nick: The cynic in me wonders what it will accomplish. I’m not trying to cast aspersions on the courageous survivors who came up with the idea, but I’m skeptical. Politicians don’t give a fuck how many kids march.
Casey: I hope that at the very least, someone will have to comment on it.
Connie: People are watching for our collective response, and we have to show that no matter how normal this all feels at this point, it is very much not normal.
Jade: I love the idea, but honestly, in this current climate, I think it presents a massive safety issue.
Lindsey: I’m worried that we’ll have to wait 20 years for these kids — who grew up thinking they could be shot in English class and watching adults do nothing to save them — to absolutely crush this issue into the ground.
Gemma: I think students have the right to peacefully protest whatever they find necessary. These children are trusting our government to take care of them.
What can the rest of the public do to show support for the safety of teachers and students during this time?
John: Petition their representatives at the state and national level. Vote them out if they are more beholden to the NRA than their constituents.
Robin: There needs to be a constant, in-your-face, aggressive fight by everyone.
Nick: Don’t ask teachers to become soldiers. Ask them how they’re doing. We’re all scared, and we’re never allowed to show it.
Connie: Unfettered access to killing machines is uniquely American, and it isn’t strengthening our society. We can do better and we should do better. We are the adults.
Tammy: If you own hunting rifles but would never own an AK-47, SAY SOMETHING! I think there’s a notion out there that only liberals want gun control, and that isn’t true.
Jade: Joining groups like Moms Demand Action and Sandy Hook Promise is a step in the right direction. Fundraising for money for metal detectors might help students feel a little safer tomorrow while we wait for change.
Kimberly: Stop spreading the “good guy with a gun” narrative.
Alisa: Demand to see your school’s active shooter plan.
Gemma: If you see a teacher, give them a hug or a drink — we’ve earned it.
Here’s what you can do right now to demand change for gun reform and support educators in America:
Call your representatives.
Donate to the Stoneman Douglas Victims’ Fund.
Join organizations like Moms Demand Action and Sandy Hook Promise.
Follow Everytown on Instagram for updates and visit their website for more ways to take action.
Learn more about the student walkout here.
Learn where to donate blood and march, and how to share tips with the police here.
Educate yourself: Learn more about the current landscape of gun control laws in America.
Have another resource to add? Fill up the comments with suggestions.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Jamie Loftus is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles. You can follow her at jamieloftusisinnocent.com.