In the wake of yet another devastating school shooting, I’ve seen some interesting trends in people’s responses and opinions. There are, of course, the more gun control camp in direct contrast to the more guns camp. (By the way, this post is not about gun control. I figure you have plenty of other places to go for that.) There’s even the arm the teachers camp (which, as a former teacher, can I just say? is horrifying and, NO). One of the stances that I don’t remember seeing in previous situations like this, however, is the hold the kid (shooter) responsible for their actions and stop trying to pin blame on guns/adults/government/policy/bullying, etc. point of view. This one kind of made me stop in my tracks and sit back and think for a minute.
In the course of my learning to be an educator, I’ve often studied about what we know to be true about the human brain. While I do not have a science-leaning mind in the least, I do find brain research to be fascinating. And though there’s still so much we don’t know, we do know that the area of the brain responsible for making rational decisions and judgments about situations and possible consequences is the pre-frontal cortex. We also know that the pre-frontal cortex does not actually fully develop until one is twenty-five years old and that until then, young people use another part of their brain, the emotional one, to make decisions. Maybe the rental car companies have one thing right there. Please don’t hear me wrong: I am, in no way, excusing the behavior of the shooter. But, I have to wonder, who could have helped this young man along the way? Why did he turn out the way he did? What other circumstances share the responsibility of what he did to those 17 young people last week?
If you’ve followed me along my blogging journey for even a little bit, you know by now my love of memoirs. I’ve read lots. Some have been hauntingly tragic, like The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner and The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. They are stories full of abuse and hunger and mental illness and fear. But something I see time and time again in these stories is that the people who have risen up out of their situations were able to point back to one or two adults that really and truly believed in them and made them feel like they were enough, just as they were. Sometimes these adults were relatives, sometimes friends, sometimes teachers. But there was always someone.
You probably also know how much I love reading Brené Brown. In fact, I just finished The Gifts of Imperfection and I loved it. In it, she details how we have a deep need to feel a sense of belonging and worth. She also outlines practical advice about how to help ourselves be brave and compassionate and connect with others. At first, I was surprised that someone actually had to write a book about this. Shouldn’t feeling like we belong be a basic right of every person? Every child? This is obviously something I’ve taken for granted thus far in my own life. But then, as I thought about it, I realized that this sense of connection and feeling of worth is very often absent in our broken world. And it made me think even further, what responsibility do the rest of us play in this?
An interesting response to the arm the teachers argument, one that I actually love, is, “yes, arm the teachers, but arm them with more counselors, more resources to help children, more emotional education, etc.” And this is exactly where I think the schools have the responsibility to help students who feel such a deep sense of isolation and anger and self-hatred. It is no secret that the idea of family in this country is broken, so when these kids cannot get what they need emotionally at home, they should have a place to turn. And that place is school. I have to believe that students who commit horrendous acts of violence received the message somewhere along the way that they didn’t matter and that they don’t belong. Sadly, these messages tend to come from the people they interact with the most: their peers in a bullying situation, their home in an unstable family situation, or even sometimes their overworked teachers in moments of frustration. But if there’s one thing I know, it’s that everything comes down to the relationships we build with children and those that we help them to build with their peers as well.
However, schools and teachers can’t fix this alone, as they are. My ideas to add to this discussion, which would of course rely on more funding and more resources for schools, would be to:
- Make smaller class sizes and in effect, hire more (good) teachers. In high school, I rarely had more than 15 or 17 kids in each class period. My teachers knew my dog’s name, my family history, when I was fighting with my best friend, what position I played on the volleyball team. And many of them, almost 15 years later, still recognize my face and know me by name. Most high school and middle school teachers today can have anywhere from 150-200 students. They see their kids maybe 45 minutes a day. Not so conducive to building meaningful relationships, and also not the fault of the teachers, but a problem with the system.
- Have less of a focus on test scores. One size does not fit all. Not all students will be “good at school” in the traditional sense. And a focus on test scores only adds stress and a sense of shame when these students fail to meet the expectations put on them from people who aren’t even educators. Instead, I think teachers should be focusing on helping young people find their strengths and cultivate their interests and follow their passions so that even when they do take tests, which are inevitable, their sense of worth will not be tied to their scores.
- Offer more access to dance education, art, music, theatre. These classes are often considered “non-essential” and the talented teachers who run these types of programs frequently find themselves fighting to keep the funding for their classes in place. Funding for the arts seems to be constantly on the chopping block when discussing budgets, but it is often in these classes where students find a safe haven and can be truly authentic versions of themselves.
- Implement a focus on real, authentic, writing instruction. Students should be taught from a young age to use writing to tell their stories. To find their voice. To share their truths, to know that their truths matter. So often, writing instruction consists of preconceived notions of what writing “should” look like or sound like. But the magic of writing is when the writer makes it their own. Through writing, I believe we learn so much about ourselves. And through sharing our writing, we learn so much about others. Like Brené Brown says, “It’s really hard to hate people close up. Move in.” Writing is a place where we can teach students to “move in”.
So, yes, while teaching kids to take responsibility for their actions is important, we also need to remember that they are kids. Even a 19 year old doesn’t have a fully developed center of rational decision-making. But they do have powerful emotions and a sense of their status in the world. Wouldn’t it be great it we could care for these kids before they get so angry and feel so alone?
Is all this enough to stop violence in schools? Of course not. There are so many other factors at play. But, to somebody, just feeling like they matter to someone could be enough. And that could, at the very least, save a few parents from having to bury their children. If we know that hurt people hurt people, then wouldn’t it also make sense that loved people would love people? I think it’s definitely something worth exploring.
Thanks for reading and until next time, peace and love from my household to yours.
PS. I’ll be back with my reading lists and also a super-fun recipe for THE BEST DIY chapstick next week!