CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Teacher Jessica Salfia was setting up prom balloons at her West Virginia high school last month when two of them burst, sparking panic in a crowded hallway between classes.
A student fell to the ground. Two others rushed into open classrooms. Salfia quickly shouted, “Those are balloons! Balloons!” and apologized when the teens realized the sound wasn’t gunshots.
The moment of horror at Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg, about 80 miles (124 kilometers) northwest of Washington, happened on May 23, a day earlier a gunman fatally shot 19 children and two teachers in a classroom in Uvalde, Texas. The response reflects the fear permeating the country’s schools and weighing on their teachers — even those who have never experienced such violence — and it adds to the strain of the coronavirus pandemic.
Salfia has a more direct connection to gun threats than most. Her mother, also a West Virginia teacher, stared at a student with a gun in her classroom seven years ago. After speaking to him for about two hours, she was acclaimed for her role in helping bring the incident to a peaceful conclusion.
For any teacher faced with a classroom in 21st-century America, the job seems to demand the impossible. Teachers who are already expected to be advisors, social workers, surrogate parents, and more for their students are sometimes called for protectors as well.
The US public school landscape has changed significantly since then the Columbine school shooting in Colorado in 1999, and Salfia said teachers think about the risks every day.
“What would happen if we went into lockdown? What would happen if I heard gunshots?” she said. “What would happen if one of my students came to school armed that day? That’s a constant train of thought.”
George Theoharis was a teacher and principal for a decade and has spent the last 18 years training teachers and administrators at Syracuse University. He said teachers are now more overwhelmed than ever — even more than they were last year “when the pandemic was new.”
“We’re kind of left in that moment where we expect teachers and schools to solve all of our problems, and do it quickly,” he said.
Schools across the country have grappled with widespread episodes of misconduct since the return to in-person learning, which has coincided with rising student mental health needs. In growing numbers Youngsters turn to gun violence to resolve spontaneous conflicts, researchers say.
In Nashville, Tennessee, three staff members from Inglewood Elementary School went into action last month to restrain a man who had jumped a fence. After children were ushered inside at the playground, the man followed them but was attacked by kindergarten teacher Rachel Davis.
At one point, secretary Katrina “Nikki” Thomas held him in a headlock. She and school accountant Shay Patton herded the man, who didn’t have a gun, into the school until authorities arrived. All three employees were injured.
“For me, it was just that these kids are innocent,” Patton said. “I just knew they couldn’t protect themselves, so it was up to us to do it. And I didn’t think twice about it.”
Less than two weeks later, the three employees watched in horror as news of the Uvalde shooting spread.
“In my head, I immediately thought, ‘It could have been me and my kids,'” Davis said. “That could have been us out there on the playground with that…guy if he had a gun on him.”
Adding to the frustration of some educators was the scapegoating of a teacher originally accused of opening the door a gunman used to enter the Uvalde, Texas, elementary school. Days later, officials said the teacher closed the door, but it wasn’t locked.
Kindergarten teacher Ana Hernandez said Texas educators are concerned after a difficult period that has lasted for years and shows no sign of ending. She and a group of colleagues from Dilley drove an hour to Uvalde to do whatever they could, dropping off donated stuffed animals and crates of water. She said it needed more.
“Changes need to be made so that we as teachers feel safe in a classroom (and) so students feel safe and secure in a classroom, too,” she said.
Tish Jennings, a professor of education at the University of Virginia who specializes in teacher stress and social-emotional learning, said teacher stress is contagious.
“It affects their ability to function and also the ability of the students to learn,” Jennings said. “So when things like that happen, the school shootings, it freezes everyone. It is very difficult to learn when you are afraid for your life.”
Salfia says the teachers’ burden is daunting.
“You are a first responder. You are a first reporter. If there is a problem at home, you are sometimes the only chance a child has to fall in love, get food that day, maybe find a warm and safe place to be today, the scope of work is huge right now. “
The pandemic added the challenge of distance learning, disinfecting classrooms and to find enough substitute teachers to keep schools going.
There is also a sense that tragedies continue to happen and politicians rarely do anything about it.
“It’s so hard to know that at any moment, that reality could also be yours or your children’s,” said Salfia, a mother of three students. “My youngest is the same age as the kids who were killed in Texas. It sharpens everything I think, especially when you’re in a classroom.”
In August 2015, the new school year had barely started for Salfia’s mother, the teacher Twila Smith, as a freshman entered Smith’s world studies class at Philip Barbour High School and pulled out a gun he had taken from home.
For about 45 minutes, Smith said, no one outside the room knew the class was being held hostage. She diverted his attention from other students and tried to keep him talking as she walked him across the room.
Finally, the police persuaded the boy to let everyone go. After at least an hour and a half, his pastor helped convince the boy to surrender. A few months later he was sentenced to a juvenile detention center until he was 21 years old.
Smith, who has a background working with students with behavioral issues, was among those hailed as heroes, a label she rejected.
“I think my training just came into play,” Smith said. “And then 29 freshmen sat there and looked at me, and I would say they were the heroes. Because they did everything I told them and they did everything he told them. And they stayed pretty calm.”
Smith followed these freshmen through graduation in 2019, when she retired.
Back at Spring Mills High, one of Salfia’s former students now works in her department as a first-year English teacher. When asked what she tells others who want to break into her field, Salfia echoes the ex-student’s description of what today’s teachers go through: “None of us are built for it.” But her commitment to the profession is so great, that they “are just built for it” and could hardly consider another profession.
“It’s the only job I can think of,” said Salfia. “But it’s also the toughest job I can imagine.”
After the balloons burst, “the kids were visibly unsettled,” she recalls. “Some people got a little bit mad at me, I think, in response to that fear that everyone had experienced for a moment.”
She knows this is the world she and her students live in now.
“We’re all ready to run away from that sound at any moment.”
Associated Press writers Jonathan Mattise in Nashville, Tennessee and Jay Reeves in Uvalde, Texas contributed to this report.
The Associated Press education team is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
More on the shooting in Uvalde, Texas: https://apnews.com/hub/uvalde-school-shooting
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https://www.local10.com/news/national/2022/06/04/teachers-after-texas-attack-none-of-us-are-built-for-this/ “None of us are built for it”