A gun-toting 12-year-old had shot a teacher somewhere in Nevada. News reports were narrating how the teacher, Mike Landsberry, had stepped out to talk the boy into handing over the gun. He was shot in the chest and killed in the attempt. The boy took his own life, too.
A former Marine, Landsberry had put his body, his training and an instinct to protect between an armed child described as suicidal and an unknown number of potential victims. He was trained for war, but it was as a teacher — “a popular math teacher” — that he made what turned out to be a life-and-death decision.
Teachers just don’t make good enough human shields against an assassin’s bullets. The thought flashed past, and just as quickly I was ashamed of it. Gallows humor comes too easily in some professions, the flippant aside that creates emotional distance and takes the edge off the daily exposure to the unappealing side of the human condition, the suffering and the violence.
It was a bad week in October for teachers. The Nevada shooting was still fresh news when the body of Colleen Ritzer, “a popular math teacher” in a Massachusetts high school, was found in the woods, her alleged assailant a 14-year-old student.
We are coming up on a year since six teachers in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, in dire circumstances, similarly lost their lives trying to shield their young charges. If the Newtown horror made it forcefully clear that occupational hazards for teachers go beyond a tire punctured or a tomato thrown through the window by an irate student or a parent’s gratuitous insult, a bad week in October put a point on it.
Teachers are not supposed to die or be maimed in the line of normal duty. They are not supposed to suffer the trauma of physical abuse — punched and kicked, slammed into walls or beaten down — in the course of duty.
A task force of the American Psychological Association issued a report in 2011 about teachers and classroom violence in which it found that 80 percent of the teachers in the national survey of about 3,000 K-12 teachers reported being physically attacked, harassed or otherwise victimized at school at least once in the current or previous year. “In sum,” the report said, “violence against teachers seems to be a universally prevalent component of the 21st century global education paradigm. … ”
Teachers are not the ones society taps to stand in the line of fire, bringing miscreants to book or protecting the nation from its enemies. They are not the ones society trains to go to work in flak jackets, their eyes peeled for dangers unknown.
Every school day, hundreds of thousands of teachers show up in classrooms across the United States (the 2010 census put the count at 7.2 million teachers altogether in 2008, from nursery schools to colleges) with one primary assignment: To help new generations of citizens acquire the skills and knowledge to build a more perfect nation on the foundations they inherit.
If teaching is a noble profession, it is this responsibility to the future and the strength of a nation that makes it so. In short, we assign to teachers the task to nurture the intellectual vitality of the nation.
(On that point, there is a spirited argument in the Oct. 23 Education Week by Anthony J. Mullen, a special education teacher in Greenwich, Conn., and the 2009 National Teacher of the Year, to erect a national monument to teachers in the nation’s capital as a visible, touchable tribute to a profession that receives much lip service but not nearly enough respect.)
Yet, if findings like the APA’s reflect the reality teachers live with, there is a high price to pay. One more observation from the report:
“Educators’ perceived victimization has been found to be associated with fear, physical and emotional symptoms, impaired personal relationships, and impaired work performance. … Teacher reports of anxiety, depression, and somatic symptoms (as a result of experiencing violence at school) were related to lower professional functioning, lower efficacy in the classroom, and lower emotional and/or physical well-being.”
We all have or will have our complement of teachers during our school and college careers. Some will be memorable; and others happily forgettable. But as a whole, the teachers we encounter will have a profound effect on how and what we learn. It is an awesome enough responsibility. Fear should have no part in it.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.