Prospective educators prepare to teach amid country’s mass shooting crisis
‘I'm an educator, I understand all of what that involves’
American University’s future educators are preparing to lead classrooms of their own amid the ongoing threat of gun violence in American schools and beyond.
In the wake of the recent mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, current and prospective educators in the AU community reflect on their unwavering passion to teach despite the potential dangers that accompany the profession and the unsettling environment they are forced to enter into.
School of Education professor Amaarah DeCuir began teaching in 1995, four years before the Columbine shooting claimed the lives of 12 students and one teacher — back when fire drills defined schools’ only safety plans, she said.
A day after the tragedy in Uvalde, DeCuir sat down to write about her time spent as an educator and the evolution of safety in the classroom.
“In that moment, I went back to my very first teaching position,” DeCuir said. “I was a fifth grade teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School here in D.C. The first line of what I wrote was, ‘I remember the exact day, the first day that I fell in love.’”
Now, DeCuir instructs and supports the next generation of teachers moving through AU. DeCuir also serves as faculty adviser to Students for Educational Advancement (SEA) on campus.
On the morning of May 24, SEA held a virtual healing circle to process the anti-Black mass shooting in Buffalo, New York and the anti-Asian salon shooting in Dallas, Texas, both of which took place earlier that month.
As the meeting wrapped up, members’ phones lit up with notifications of another shooting, this time at an elementary school.
Junior Josiah Carolina, a history major and SEA president, wants to be a high school history teacher. He had helped to organize the virtual healing circle event.
“We had just finished processing so much trauma, and then to find out that there was a school shooting in a room full of prospective educators, it was really tough,” Carolina said.
As the tragedies compounded, Qudsia Saeed, a junior majoring in elementary education, described a heavy moment on the call as the group entered into a moment of silence and began to process mourning additional loss of life in the very setting they’d soon be entering.
“It's a really valuable space that we shared,” Saeed said. “I will forever treasure that moment of being together, even though we are going through these very difficult moments in history.”
Today, leading a classroom requires educators to make a difficult decision: would you put your life on the line? Carolina said his unwavering passion to teach has informed his answer to this question.
“I would absolutely give my life for my students,” Carolina said. “That's unquestionable. I don't think anyone should be going into teaching unless that's the case.”
For senior psychology major Nadia Adams, her dream of working as a high school counselor means those closest to her might also be forced to make a sacrifice.
“My mom texted me out of the blue and asked if I was sure I wanted to work in schools,” Adams said. “It is difficult knowing that if I do work in schools, my mom will worry about me every day.”
Following the shooting in Uvalde, policymakers have reignited a battle on gun control.
President Joe Biden signed a bipartisan gun reform bill into law on Saturday after decades of stalled efforts to enact gun control. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act limits firearm access among young buyers and domestic violence offenders, and also funds school safety and mental health programs as well as expands background checks for those under 21. The bill does not ban assault weapons such as the kind used in the Uvalde shooting.
There is also a push from Republican members of congress such as Sens. Ted Cruz and Kevin McCarthy as well as Rep. Lauren Boebert to look to “harden” schools as a solution.
Hardening schools can look like arming teachers or installing surveillance technology, metal detectors and fortified entries in an attempt to bolster security, according to the National Education Association. However, some of AU’s future educators say this method is neither appealing to them as employees nor conducive to a flourishing learning environment.
Carolina grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, just a 20 minute drive from Sandy Hook Elementary School, the site of the 2012 shooting during which six adult staff members and 20 children between the ages of six and seven were killed.
Carolina describes Bridgeport as marginalized and economically disenfranchised. Just like the city, Carolina said the schools he attended were frequently the subject of high policing. He walked through metal detectors to get into school and during the day a security force of around 10 officers would patrol halls monitoring student activity.
“Going to school in a very militarized environment, being surveyed and police searched, you go into school thinking that you're guilty of something already,” Carolina said.
Carolina and Saeed agree, this degree of surveillance disconnects young people from the prospects of education; they've seen such ramifications in action.
Saeed mentored students at Hart Middle School in D.C. this past year. There, she witnessed the impact of such stringent security in a school setting, such as her sixth and seventh graders entering through metal detectors daily.
“They'd have to wait in lines to just get inside the school,” Saeed said. “This didn't make the students happy or safe. It didn't feel like a community. It felt more like a jail.”
With over two decades of teaching experience, DeCuir believes hardening schools misdirects time and funding from resources such as counseling, mental health and literacy initiatives. Carolina also thinks school administrations, politicians and the public need to start thinking and acting proactively.
“You want to arm teachers?” Carolina said. “Arm them with the materials, curriculum development, training and proper staffing of social workers, psychologists, therapists and guidance counselors that they need.”
DeCuir said teachers, while having to adapt to difficult standards of the job title, can also contribute to the future of American classrooms free of such threats.
“I'm an educator, I understand all of what that involves,” DeCuir said. “At the same time, I'm going to work my darndest to dismantle any of the systems or practices that we have outside and inside of schools that are creating conditions where violence and horror continues to occur.”
Though Saeed said she is not comfortable teaching in a classroom in the U.S. in part due to politicization of education and the threat of gun violence, she hopes that her peers and herself keep in mind the imagination of what schools can be.
“It's important for us as teachers to continue to think radically and dream big about what schools can and should look like,” Saeed said. “We can pass our vision for schools on to our students and they can become the changemakers we need them to be in this world.”