Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Can Teachers Save Every Child: Even Dylan Klebold?

Some children come from healthy homes.
and they're easy to teach.
Others come to class loaded
with problems and even loaded weapons.
Saving them is much tougher business,
Teachers can only do their best.

That's not always enough.
THERE'S NOTHING REMOTELY FUNNY about school shootings. I know, very nearly, from experience. A quarter century ago a young man brought a gun to school to shoot me and to shoot one of his wrestling teammates. His teammate had been taunting him about his weight and I had caught him drawing an obscene picture during class and said he had to show it to his father.

Luckily, he didn't shoot either of us, or anyone else that day. Years later, however, he shot himself.  Nothing funny about this in any way.

Still, when I hear the cascading criticism leveled at public school teachers and hear experts insist we have to save every kid, I think, who was ever going to save Dylan Klebold? Who was ever going to save Eric Harris? Those two were the shooters at Columbine High in April 1999.

It's ironic, when teachers hear their job is to save every child, because the people who say they know how to do the saving are never the ones who do the saving. Congress passes No Child Left Behind and promises....promises, mind you....that every child in America is going to be proficient in reading and math by 2014. 

Of course, teachers have to be committed to working toward that noble goal. It's absolutely true:  We don't want to give up on any child.

That doesn't mean we should take leave of our five senses and ignore harsh realities. The New York Times reported this week that Salinas, California has a serious gang problem and police are struggling to control 3,500 young men and women involved in various criminal enterprises. 

I see that, and I want to tell the fools in the U. S. Department of Education, or our pompous Governor John Kasich here in Ohio, or assorted newspaper critics, "You want to save a sixteen-year-old gang member with a violent criminal record, you save him yourself."

FRANKLY, IT GETS TIRESOME LISTENING to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan preach. He says fixing American education is "all about the talent," meaning all about teachers. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York City, Harvard grad, and billionaire, a man who never spent a day in a classroom in his life, unless he got lost on the way to making another deposit at his bank, insists that his efforts to reform NYC schools have been thwarted because too many teachers come from the bottom ranks of their college classes, and "not of the best schools."

Davis Guggenheim, producer of Waiting for Superman, put together an entire film focusing on five great kids and their families and how badly they wanted to win the lottery and get into the local charter schools. The moral of his fable was simple. The typical public school teacher was lazy or incompetent, or both, and all parents and all children would live happily ever after if we had more vouchers and more charter schools. Then he sent his own kids to an elite private school, lest they might rub shoulders--or noses--with actual poor kids--or gang members. 

Steven Brill, non-teaching expert on teaching, and a well-healed lawyer, insisted in his own book, Class Warfare, that the main problems in schools were teachers' unions and tenure laws. So, sure. I guess you could argue if I hadn't had tenure that poor boy wouldn't have brought that gun. And if it weren't for teachers unions, those two terrible young men who shot up Columbine would have been fine.

Try teaching in the public schools. You're going to be dealing with a lot of great, great kids and parents. That doesn't mean the worst human beings in the world can't produce egg and sperm and be moms or dads. That doesn't mean you won't see kids who are being abused by mom, won't see kids who have to deal with drug-addled dad, that you won't run into unfortunate young men and women with profound emotional problems. 

THEN, SAVING EVERY CHILD ISN'T AS EASY as the fools who write books and the knuckle-heads who pass legislation promising miracles make the job of working those miracles sound.

It's a daunting challenge, even for the greatest teachers in America.


  1. Mr. Viall,
    Wonderful post, as usual. I love reading your blog. The idea of saving children is something I know a lot about. As a "saved" child myself, I became a teacher partly out of a desire to somehow pay back the teachers who'd saved me along the way. I felt like I had a lot of personal experiences from which to draw; an ability to zero in on those children that would need the most help-academically and emotionally. The first teaching job I would have was as an alternative middle school teacher here in Atlanta. Saving children here I come! As soon as the year began, I came to understand what I was up against. These were not your typical middle school kids. They had all been permanently expelled from their home schools. They were prone to violence and emotional instability. Some were gang members, and some could not read. Even with those challenges, I fell in love with them. They revealed themselves as individuals-funny, artistic, and clever. They were my children, my charges. I prayed for them, cared for them, and worried about them surviving the weekends. It felt as if the harder I tried to save my students, the worse their situations became. The more I exposed them to the possibilities that could be, the more their dark, harsh realities seemed to seduce them back. It was like sitting in a sinking rowboat, with a hole the size of a watermelon in the bottom, and only a thimble with which to bail. I was a good teacher. Actually, no, I was a damn good one, but there was no amount of talent, passion, skill, or commitment that was going to save them. I was fighting circumstances so much larger than I. In those two years, I didn’t manage to save anyone. Evil triumphed over good. To say that it had been a difficult and dangerous position would be an understatement of the facts, but I wouldn’t trade the experience. I learned so much, including some lessons about saving students. The hardest lesson of all-teachers cannot save their students. A teacher's best hope: to positively effect his/her students. But to actually “save”, no. This knowledge was essential for me to move forward. If a teacher had to live with the impossible reality of having to save each and every student, he/she would be paralyzed with fear. No one person-no one profession-should have to carry that much responsibility. It's farcical to believe any one person could have that much power. We are not God-like in our ability to shape the past or future. Saying a teacher should be the savior of her students, is like making the police man responsible for keeping the public out of jail. The officer can protect, educate, inform, and warn, but ultimately, the decision falls with the public. None of this means I’ve given up trying to save people. It will always be my gut reaction to try to fix what is broken. What it does mean, after all these years, is that like the officer, trying to prevent tragedy from striking, I can send out warnings, flares, and even call up other agencies for help. I can enlist all the help I can find. I can do all one person-one human being-can do. Nothing else is realistic.

    Julie Huddleston-Powell

  2. Another teacher posted this comment on my Facebook page (name left out, rather than possibly identify her school):

    Right now, I am dealing with a situation where a student wrote how he wants to kill himself and other students at our school. The student wrote how he fights against the evil inside of himself to stop himself from doing something he will regret. I turned the writing over to the "authorities." Now, as always, it has been turned around on me. I did not accept the writing as an assignment, so now I am being asked repeatedly why this student did not receive credit. They have called his paper "off topic," not inapprpriate, threatening, or scary. I now am being required to justify how this student did not receive credit for that paper, other papers, and for the class. To me, the bottom line is this: Teaching is becoming a very scary job. Passing and graduating students is more important than safety in schools. As a parent, I would be very concerned. Too much is being covered up to protect the administration and their jobs.