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Why Teachers Should Be Able To Make Space For Critical Discussions About Violence

Whoever says that schools are safe spaces, ain't woke.

In light of the school shootings that have taken place, for what seems to be such a long chunk of time since I've been a teacher in school, a couple of different things come to mind.

For some reason, our children believe that school is a "safe space."

Who told them that? While school should not, by no means, be considered the most dangerous place in our communities, I wonder who began spreading the fallacy that it is a "safe" space. As a black woman, maybe I have a different view on the meaning of safety, but school was never a "safe space" for me. As black students, we know what is expected of us, so we fall in line with the expectations of the traditional white middle-class model of education that our country prides itself upon. I went to schools where we sat at desks or tables, completed assignments and earned grades that showed that we were able to repeat the "right" answers back to the teacher through some form of assessment. Students take the standardized tests and live with the labels that accompany those scores. They complete assignments and projects, and turn them in to be graded by a teacher, usually according to an arbitrary rubric. Our students are often forced to relinquish agency to allow their teachers to stick to "best practices" that they learn from books, such as, Teach Like A Champion, and hope that their work is acceptable. Most students of color can relate to similar forms of education, which makes school more of a dangerous place than a safe one.

When we choose to go against the traditional model, we are forced to carry heavy, life-changing labels such as "low-achieving," "low-ability," or "at-risk." School is far from safe without the presence of guns. Guns are only one tool of violence that we can see.

For some students, the violence that takes place against them intensifies mental anguish. When there is little space in the classroom for them to share insights that may reveal deeper-rooted issues, the consequences are sometimes dire. Our school system is in danger of continuing violence against children through the disservice of allowing personal critical inquiry as a mere option in the classroom. Every time a person walks into a school with the intention to harm, we call it violence, yet we refuse to name the systemic ways that our schooling and educational environments and culture harm our students. School is not a safe space and, for many, it never has been. 

As teachers, we have no idea how to address the fear and anxiety around school shootings.

Since schools should be "safe spaces," many teachers are afraid/do not know how to talk about what is happening with gun violence in their classrooms. This makes complete sense. No one goes into their first teaching orientation and gets the run-down of how to talk to students about school shootings and there is no step-by-step manual on how to do it. Some teachers are even encouraged not to talk about the shootings at all.

Feeling "bad"  is not enough. Marching in solidarity is not enough. We have to take the time and put in the effort to talk things through in order to develop ideas for change, and that starts in our own classrooms.

We are all allowed to be scared, feel helpless and be at a loss for words when it comes to sensitive topics like gun violence, and we will not always have a solution to every problem. Feeling "bad" is not enough. Marching in solidarity is not enough. We have to take the time and put in the effort to talk things through in order to develop ideas for the change that starts in our own classrooms. There are ways to have difficult discussions without faking bravery or wisdom, and all of that comes through critical discussions about social justice.

So, what do we do?

Yes, school shootings are known as the "big" violent things that happen in schools. We can see, hear and feel the trauma and loss that results from each event, but those should not be the only forms of violence that we feel the need to discuss. Our students are never too young to talk about what they are experiencing in the world, as the "March for Our Lives" protestors and young speakers have showed us. Like everything else in education, instead of reactionary teaching, we should subscribe to more of a critical proactive pedagogy.

  • Open up classroom conversations that talk about the issues of mental health, violence, law, self-care, awareness of surroundings, self-esteem, accountability and social justice.
  • Tie these topics into the texts that we read by allowing students to explore inquiries about themselves and their stance on world events, including historical and current social justice issues.
  • Include diverse social justice texts in our classroom libraries by authors who are critically conscious and present stories (whether fictional or non-fictional) that involve topics of social justice from many perspectives.
  • Cultivate a learning space that allows for students to feel safe enough to reflect and relate to one another, e.g., through critical dialogue and journaling (Socratic circles, free-writing, opportunities to read to write), about a variety of topics that allow space for the sharing of the personal that often goes unshared.

None of these suggestions are meant to be a one-size-fits-all, seamless solution to the many issues within schools, nor will they prevent another school shooting. They will not necessarily quell the fear and other emotions behind school violence, but change cannot be made until we raise awareness of the different issues in our educational system as a whole, which means making the amplification of student voice and agency a norm.

Take a message from the Parkland students who credit their teacher in preparing them for transforming their mission into a national movement. Remember that change starts on a micro level in our very own classrooms before it reaches macro systemic influence on the rest of the world.

Now that things are happening, people are dying and the world is noticing, our reaction should be proactive. We have to start with our students, our classrooms and our schools to create the change that we want to see in order to create spaces within schools where students can safely and more openly express themselves without the fear of punishment for resisting a tradition of silence and compliance. Only then can we have healthy discourse that reveals the unseen side of education, allows us to proactively answer calls to action and improve the odds for schools to become "safe" spaces.

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Tiye Naeemah Cort is a Ph.D. student in Curriculum and Instruction at The University of Texas at Austin. She is the editor-in-chief and founder of "Feminessay" (www.feminessay.com), an online writing community for Black women writers. She also runs a personal blog "The Black Educator" (www.theblackeducator.com), where she writes about education and other lifestyle topics.