On 12 June, there were the first signs of a bipartisan deal on some US gun control measures. Two weeks ago, 21 people – including 19 children – were killed in a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. For teachers, this is an ever-present risk and one for which they have to prepare their students.
VIRGINIA, US – “Hey, Mr Robinson – like, what would you do if we all just got up from our desks and walked out?”
At some point in every school year, a brazen, cheeky 16- or 17-year-old will ask me this question during some downtime at the end of class.
“Well, I would try to get you all to come back into the classroom, but then I would just send a message to an administrator. And I’m not writing 27 referrals [for disciplinary infractions],” I usually respond.
Teaching teenagers, and getting them to do what you want them to do, is a bit of a magic trick. Because at some point they do realise that no one can “make” them do anything. If they are unaffected by the consequences of non-compliance, what is a teacher to do? And what if you need them to comply in dire circumstances?
I teach English in a high school that exists somewhere between suburban and rural America. Once a year, the entire building participates in a full lockdown drill, as required by state law. Teachers are notified ahead of time. At some point in the morning, the principal announces over the intercom that the school is in full lockdown, though it’s never stated why. This means that all doors are meant to be shut and locked (which is supposed to be the case anyway), and that teachers are supposed to cease instruction for the duration of the drill. Teachers can use this time to explain what we are supposed to do inside the classroom during a full lockdown, which I will not share here. After anywhere between eight to 12 minutes, the principal announces that the lockdown has been lifted.
(A full or partial lockdown can be declared within the building for a number of reasons, all of which require the hallways to be free of foot traffic. A partial lockdown is similar to a full lockdown, only teachers are allowed to continue instruction.)
The full lockdown simulation is met by the students with the same enthusiasm as a fire drill: another thing the school does at different points throughout the year, just like the earthquake drill or the tornado drill. Most emergencies that high schools prepare for rarely, if ever, occur, so why would the full lockdown drill be any different? But that does not mean that students don’t think about why the school has us go through with it.
[See also: How America leads the world in school shootings]
However, emergencies do happen. There have been 27 school shootings this year. There have been 119 school shootings since 2018, when Education Week, a professional journal, began tracking such incidents. The highest number of shootings, 34, occurred last year. There were ten shootings in 2020, and 24 each in 2019 and 2018.
One of my subjects is English 12, for students in their final year of high school. In Virginia, English 12 is usually the class in which students read British and European literature, including Lord of the Flies. William Golding’s story of well-to-do private school boys falling into savage chaos is usually a class highlight. When I introduce the book to the students, I explain a concept that the class will refer to as the “veil of authority”.
Broadly, the book argues that we follow the rules and comply with the authorities only out of a mixture of duty and coercion, but that when given the right circumstances, people will abandon these things and give in to their darkest impulses. Their true nature, if you will.
As a light-hearted example, I create a scenario in which our class ends up on a deserted island as part of a field trip gone awry. And we talk about how my “authority” over these students as their teacher would only last as far as my ability to lead in a completely new context. As my classes usually include some good ol’ boy roughnecks, we have a good laugh about how they know everything about roughin’ it and I’m some snooty English teacher who doesn’t know anything about the real world.
But then I’ll say something like this: “Well, suppose right now our principal were to come over the intercom and say ‘Emergency! There is a gunman in the building. Teachers – lock your doors. Lockdown!’ And then we hear the gunshots and screams in the hallways.” I ask the students how long they would trust me to keep them safe. How long would they listen to me?
The mood of the classroom always changes. This is no longer a hypothetical in extreme fantasy. It is now far more real.
I tell the students what I would do (again, I am not going to share that specific information). One thing a former principal would constantly say that left an impression on me: “Our number one job, as educators, is to ensure that these children get home safe every day.” I share this with them to let them know I have thought long and hard about keeping them safe in any situation. Because I have to.
But I ask again – how long would these students yield to my so-called authority and stay in the room?
At this point, in every class, a certain number of students will speak up: “I’m sorry, man. I like you and all, but if I think I have a chance, you’re not keeping me from that door.” Or: “Yeah, Mr Robinson, first chance I get, I’m out the door.”
When these students say these things, I tell you that they say them not out of hubris (well, maybe a little), nor are they trying to get a rise out of me. They say that their aim is not to endanger their classmates, but that they trust themselves to make it on their own. They are saying this because THEY have thought long and hard about this. Because they have to.
And here’s the rub – how far would I go to keep them safe in my classroom? In Lord of the Flies, Ralph tries to maintain order with the sound of the conch shell. But as the novel progresses, the boys respond to its authority less and less. All the tricks I’ve picked up for getting students to listen to me – how long would they last?
In quiet moments driving to and from school, I have done personal visualisations of what I would do. What if it happened in my classroom? If I had time, would I intervene? Am I the kind of person who would intervene? Does this train of thought reveal a similar level of hubris as that of my bolder students?
The authority I hold over my students only lasts as long as they consent or are indifferent to the consequences of challenging it. The question is: when I really need them to listen to me, will they do it? Will they keep listening to me? I ask these questions because I have to. Because I have to make sure they get home safe.