Sandy Hook Started a Conversation—Now What?

As teachers, our open discussion of tragedies like Sandy Hook is something we can do, today, that will contribute to clear thinking and ethical pedagogy.

We are teachers and problem solvers. We are learners. "What can we learn from this?" we ask. We think ahead, look for the lesson in every situation, find solutions. We do this every single day in our classrooms. When lessons fall flat or when we struggle to reach our students, we demand to know why so that when the next class comes in, six minutes later, we make the immediate fix. It’s the way we survive, the way we feel we can control something.

What do we have in our bag of teacher tricks to address the horror of those classrooms at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut—and too many others?

By now we’ve all been inundated with excellent, age-appropriate tips, lessons and advice for how to manage and discuss the school shooting with our students. It’s never enough, but the teaching community is generous, smart and incredibly wise to offer us all so many excellent resources. As a parent, I’ve received numerous thoughtful responses and much advice from our local elementary and high school district superintendents.

What I’m missing are the proactive lessons about how to prevent such horrors. We have safety plans and escape routes. Our local police department is well trained, as were the law enforcement officials in Newtown. I wanted more, something more specific, more personal, something that says, "Danger ahead! Pay attention to this!"

What I found, however, was a national conversation that potentially stigmatizes a vulnerable group that is not statistically more likely to be violent. In the wake of this horror, where the issue of mental illness in general and Asperger's syndrome in particular blew up, I believe we must educate ourselves so we have the facts.

We must come up with ways to discuss differences. We can’t shy away from this. We should lead the education call of duty here. In our private time, we can advocate for other solutions (gun control, etc.) but as teachers, on duty, our open discussion is something we can do, today, that will contribute to clear thinking and ethical pedagogy.

I am eager to learn. It feels like something I can do today. It is an action that will be part of my teacher tool kit that I carry with me every day, hoping to educate and protect my beloved students, every last one of them.

 Cytrynbaum is executive director of the Chicago Innocence Project and teaches a city-wide investigative journalism course. 

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