The Time I Taught at Gunpoint. Literally.
I like almost all students. Pretty much naturally. After decades of teaching, I have found that virtually every student I encounter just wants to make the best of their situation, whether they are privileged to the point of being spoiled or face such unreasonable hardships that they are angry at the world (with legitimacy), or–like most students–they are somewhere in between. Liking students makes my job as a teacher infinitely easier. And when I have a student who is causing problems, usually asking them if they are OK resolves the issue.
If I have a student who is really acting out, I try to keep these things in mind to help me meet the challenge.
Occasionally, though, I have had a situation that was not resolvable. Here were a few of those situations, which occurred in different schools in different states at different levels:
- Once, a student was arrested DURING my class. The police came to the classroom door and called me out to the hall. They explained that they were here to arrest one student and they would prefer if I could ask him to take his stuff and go into the hallway, so that they could handcuff him in private (this student was an adult). I did, he complied politely, and he was taken in what appeared to be as gentle and professional a manner as appropriate. I found out later he was convicted of grand larceny. (Stealing time cards from work and using the information to apply for credit cards and maxing them out.) I never saw the student again, until he emailed me for a letter of recommendation a couple of years later, even though he had been failing the class when he was arrested.
- A student I taught in high school would simply not do anything I asked. Nothing I tried made any difference: not speaking with her one-on-one, not firm directions, not asking her what I could do make class more engaging, not calling her parents, not setting up grading contracts. Nothing. She finally confided to a school counselor that I reminded her of a relative who had abused her. She was moved to another class and she immediately thrived. She was also provided additional support for her disclosure, but I wasn’t permitted to know anything more about it–and rightly so. That’s a generally happy conclusion, excepting the terrible abuse she had been through. The situation haunts me to this day.
- A student in my class was clearly mentally ill. They weren’t able to stay on track in class discussion, but they often came up with really inventive and interesting theories about the literature we read. They often missed class and could be a little belligerent if the rest of us did not immediately understand their ideas. But they were an interesting member of the class, and I could facilitate well enough to make things work. The other students were very kind and understanding, and I was (privately) very proud of them for that. Unfortunately, there were other classes in which this student was not accommodated (probably could not be accommodated the way I could do so in my small, discussion-based class). The school police came to the door, and the student refused to leave. They were afraid. The police could or would not allow them to stay until class was over. I was able to convince them to go–the police were taking them to the school’s counseling services, and I was informed later that there were deep, deep issues that I was not aware of. Several weeks later, the student appeared back in class with no explanation. Then they were gone again, never to be seen again. Another haunting situation.
Most people who have taught for any length of time have stories like these. Unexpected challenges arise, most of which we can manage, but some situations even the most tolerant and resourceful teachers cannot resolve.
The stories above are several categories down in intensity compared to the time a student pointed a gun at my head.
An Especially Challenging Case
The student who pointed a gun at me had been challenging for months.
He was very, very smart (likey smarter than me) and he clearly considered school irrelevant to him except as a place to bring himself pleasure. He never expressed regret for a single one of his many problematic actions, even when he acknowledged that his behavior interfered with the learning of other students.
Despite his high intelligence, his behavior put him in a non-college-bound track, which meant he was in smaller classes with officially “less capable” (and often less compliant) students than average. (I enjoyed these classes, especially the students who were playfully noncompliant. We usually got along.)
I taught many of these classes, and I also taught sections of the college-bound classes in the 12th grade. Because of this, I was able to switch students between my non-college-bound and college-bound classes as long as the students, parents, and administration agreed. I usually asked students to move from non-college-bound to college-bound (because I found the students were bored), and in most cases, it worked really well. When they were successful, my actions reversed previous well-intentioned but bad decisions of allowing a student’s behavior to determine their intellectual capacity and class placement. (This is one reason why I am anti-tracking.)
In this student’s case, however, it did not work. The student was unwilling to take a more challenging class, even an elective. He was perfectly happy where he was. He enjoyed distracting me and his fellow students. He experimented with different methods of distraction, and he was often very successful. I ended up sending him to the vice principal’s office often, and each time, he and I both knew, was a failure for me. On his way out, he’d say something like, “This is going to make you look bad, not me.” It galled me that he was probably right.
He teased other students, often viciously, he explicitly encouraged them to resist anything I did, and no matter what I gave him to do, he would either do it really well (and lightning fast–and then cause trouble) or he would refuse to do it at all. I sometimes wonder if I had known more about differentiated instruction back then, if I could have made that work. But probably not with him.
Calling home never helped because his father always took his side, even bringing a paralegal to the school for meetings about his child’s behavior, which were scheduled many times. Legal representation in such matters was rare back then.
The second to last straw was the gun. Yeah, that didn’t end it. This was pre-Columbine and pre-internet, so the idea of a gun in school was just unheard of, at least in the white suburbs where I taught.
One of Those Moments When You Find Out Who You Are
I knew nothing about guns, though most of the students in this midwestern school did, from years of hunting as a family tradition.
I was teaching my class one day, explaining a concept from the front of the room, when I saw the student on the left side of the class suddenly stand up, spread his legs into a shooting stance, stretched his arms into a point, and he aimed a handgun at my head.
I felt death. I was completely exposed. I knew I’d never even hear the bullet before I was gone. Perhaps he shot and I am gone and this world is just a figment of my afterlife. (Please, don’t tell me I dreamed up 2020!) I don’t think I made any particular decision in that moment. I know I felt my inwards shift, and I tightened my muscles so I wouldn’t wet myself. And then, I just kept teaching.
I ignored the student, kept talking, made eye contact with each of the other students. And kept teaching.
About 20-30 seconds went by, I think, and finally he just sat down. I think he got bored by not getting a reaction, and he stopped. I don’t remember what happened after that, but I know I just went on with class.
What I found out about who I am is that I’m a teacher. In my last seconds, I taught. I didn’t cower, I didn’t confront. I didn’t strategize. I taught. I have no idea if my being a teacher in that moment is good or bad. I just know that I was.
As class ended, I went over to him and said in as friendly a voice as I could muster, “Hey, that was a cool gun. Can I see it?”
He showed me the gun, pleased with the attention, I think, and he showed me that it was fake. Thank the gods.
When he left, I immediately contacted the vice principal, and the gun was taken from him.
He was in my classroom the next day, mad as hell that his toy gun was confiscated. That was the extent of the punishment. Since the days of school shootings, this seems unbelievable, but that’s what happened.
Still a Teacher
That situation, especially the moments in which I taught while a gun pointed at my head, remains sharp in my memory. It reminds me that there are people with whom we cannot reason. But they are few and far between. Most students, like most other people, really do just want to make it through the best they can and they could use help.
We teachers do tremendously important work. Not one of us ever wonders, “Am I doing something worthwhile in my life.” Teachers deserve high pay, powerful support, and a reasonable number of students to work with.
As we approach the end of the worst year that many of us have ever lived (at least communally). Please take some extended time to yourself and celebrate the challenges you have faced–even those that you didn’t completely win.
You’re a teacher. There’s no more important or more respectable work in the world. You are my colleagues and my compatriots. Thank you for all you do.