U.S. children spend 15,000 hours in school between kindergarten and high school graduation. They sit, rove, study, jump around, and talk while teachers–legally responsible for their health and safety–perform so many roles that even parents lose count. Teachers in these classrooms, as Philip Jackson in his classic Life in Classrooms observed, are combinations of “traffic cop, judge, supply sergeant, and timekeeper” as lessons unfold but even more so before, during, and after the school day, social worker, therapist, proxy parent, moral exemplar–I could go on but readers get the picture. Oops! Forgot that teachers also are responsible for teaching academic content and skills to young children and youth.
Now with the cascade of national protests over school shootings after the Parkland high school (FLA), the additional role of armed bodyguard–add that to the list–has been proposed by the President of the United States and elected representatives who seek solutions in focusing on individuals (i.e., teachers) rather than institutions (i.e., U.S. Congress and states legislating tighter controls on access to weapons).
The folly of such a “solution” and its easy-to-predict consequences have been pointed out by many others (see here, here, here, and here). What I want to concentrate on in this post is, first, how varied and complex the roles are that teachers perform during those 15,000 hours children spend in school, and second, that militarizing schools shifts the problem from governmental action on guns to arming teachers.
Teaching is complex work that requires both improvisation and inner discipline. Also needed are street smarts and social radar to sense what is happening at any given moment of interactions with students and give appropriate responses. Teachers make instantaneous decisions, some routine and some idiosyncratic tailored to the situation and particular individuals. Assuming a six-hour school day, teachers make anywhere from two to three a minute (in their heads as to what to do next or out loud with a direction to an individual or the entire class). And that is not counting teacher decisions made in planning the lesson being taught. The teacher, then, performs the role of expert decision-maker. Add that to the list
In distinguishing between planning lessons and actual classroom teaching–what academics call “interactive” teaching– researchers found that teacher-made routines governed the total number and frequency of decisions. However, these routines for managing groups of 25-35 while teaching content and skills—taking attendance, going over homework, doing seat-work, asking questions –were unpredictably interrupted by the unexpected (e.g., upset students, PA announcements, student questions, technology breakdowns). thus, spontaneous, unplanned decisions had to be made. Both the expected and unexpected piled up teacher decisions in each lesson over the course of a day. Keep in mind that elementary school teachers cover multiple subjects (e.g., reading, math, science, social studies) during the school day while secondary school teachers have anywhere from 3 or more preparations for their 4-6 classes a day.
*Researchers Hilda Borko and Richard Shavelson summarized studies that reported .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching.
*Researcher Philip Jackson (p. 149) said that elementary teachers have 200 to 300 exchanges with students every hour (between 1200-1500 a day), most of which are unplanned and unpredictable calling for teacher decisions, if not judgments.
In short, teaching because it is “opportunistic”–neither teacher nor students can say with confidence what exactly will happen next–requires “spontaneity and immediacy” (Jackson, p. 166, 152).
Effective teachers, then, like top jazz musicians and basketball point guards improvise–decide on the spot–as they deal with both the routine and unexpected in the art of teaching.
After the killings in the Florida high school three weeks ago, one of the “solutions” highly preferred by many top elected officials is to arm a few teachers in each building to stop anyone seeking to shoot-up a school. The insanity of the proposal is anchored in taking one of the roles teachers must perform (protect health and safety of students) to the maximum thereby undercutting all of the other roles teachers play in the complex interaction called “teaching a lesson.” After all, the very basis for learning–intended and collateral–is the relationship between the teacher and student. Inserting a gun into that relationship inevitably alters the learning process adding fear in the room where a locked drawer or cabinet houses a gun.
Such a proposal reveals alarmingly two fundamental truths: first, the simple-minded view that top elected officials have about the nature of teaching, learning, and schooling. Second, the clever shifting of the problem belonging to schools and not to the social and political structures that validate a gun culture and violence in the nation preventing even reasonable controls on who can buy guns and where.
Arming teachers is another unfortunate but common move to “educationalize” a national problem–killing children and youth in schools–and direct attention away from political decisions that have to be made to control buying of guns and keeping schools safe.