Teachers are the real first responders

By Mary Butz

 

I was the principal of a small high school in New York City. It was the end of the day after dismissal. The building was quiet. Many of the teachers were hanging around together, sharing stories about their day and ideas about lessons, just chilling out after a day’s work. Some of the kids were working together on projects. I was in a peaceful place. It was a good day. We have a great staff, these are good kids. Life is good.

My peacefulness was suddenly interrupted when a young man ran into my office and told me that two guys had one of my students cornered and “the guys were packing.” He said he was scared for the kid and needed my help immediately. Without any plan, I followed him out of the building and found the student leaning (uncomfortably) against a cyclone fence with two older men blocking his path. I was clearly outnumbered.

I used the old principal routine and went up to the cornered student and began to yell at him. “Why didn’t you report to your after-school suspension?” “What do you think you are doing out here?” “If I have to contact your mother about this, she will be furious! Now get into that building and do what you are supposed to be doing!”

We had a happy ending, but there was no happy ending for the teachers and kids at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. There was terror and death.

He looked at me with astonishment and claimed that he definitely did not have an after-school suspension. My retort was “Enough, now come on before you get into more trouble!” The two guys who had him cornered were bewildered and taken by surprise. They began to question what was going on. I grabbed my student by the arm and dragged him into the building. We got inside, up the steps. The door locked behind us. He said, “How’d you know I was in trouble out there? And please don’t make me do no after-school suspension.” I hugged him; we laughed. My heart was pounding.

We had a happy ending, but there was no happy ending for the teachers and kids at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. There was terror and death.

I have been sick to my stomach over this recent shooting in Florida. What would I have done? How do you confront an assault weapon? It is not like walking up to two thugs on the street. What did the teachers do? They didn’t have a chance to make up a story — like I did at the spur of a moment — but they did grab their students by the arm (whether in their class or not) and pull them to safety, long before the police could get there. The teachers responded quickly, not thinking of themselves but reacting instinctively, without hesitation. They took care of their students. Their first thoughts were about the kids, about the lives that were entrusted to them.

When most people become educators, it is not for the money or the working conditions — it’s not a Mr. Chips world out there. Dealing with other people’s children is not an easy way to make your living. Those kids are in your care for six or seven hours a day, and you really get to know the. Some days are joyful; some are full of dilemmas. It’s not a cakewalk.

Teaching is a vocation — a commitment — a calling to serve. And now we are asking our educators to serve in yet another capacity: to be the real first responders. They risk their lives to protect those in their care. The principal at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., did not hesitate to run to the door to “take care of business.” Who was it that was disturbing her students? She was murdered along with her colleagues and 20 first-graders.

Teaching is a vocation — a commitment — a calling to serve. And now we are asking our educators to serve in yet another capacity: to be the real first responders.

The geography teacher in Florida at Stoneman Douglas High School did not hesitate for a moment to gather the students and get them to safety. He got them into his classroom. They were safe and secure, and he took a bullet at the door. Are these folks not first responders? Are they not the first to face the danger and protect those in their care?

The police arrived quickly. They were good; they caught the guy. The president praised them. He praised the medical crews that came to care for those who had been shot. He praised the doctors who were tending to the wounded and dying. But I did not hear a word of praise or thanks from the president for the real first responders — the teachers who boldly did everything in their power to protect their students.

The president didn’t say it, but the students did. Adolescents are wonderful to work with: Their honesty, boldness and zest for life are joyful. They are not easily fooled. They talked about being protected; they talked about being grateful. They knew it was their teachers who were the first ones there to take care of them. Teenagers tell it like it is, and they knew who the real heroes were. They got it.

May God bless the students and staff of Stoneman Douglas High School and help them through their trauma and sorrow. And for those who were taken mercilessly, torn from their families and future, may they rest in peace.


Mary Butz was a high school social studies teacher for many years in the New York City public schools. She was an assistant principal and then the founding principal of one of the city’s small high schools designed to promote project-based learning. She created the first citywide training program for principals. During her career, she worked for both the United Federation of Teachers’ Teacher Center and the American Federation of Teachers.

 

 

 

 

 

 


This blog post is re-published with permission from AFT Voices. Read the original post. To learn more about AFT's Schoolhouse Voices from PreK-12 public educators, visit: https://aftvoices.org/school-house-voices/home. Follow on Twitter @rweingarten or on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/AFTunion.