Assault and Battery, Plain and Simple

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Indiana teachers ‘shot execution style’ with fake bullets during active shooter training (New York Daily News)

One of the biggest challenges we teachers face is making sure that every moment in our classes has some kind of meaning to it. As interminable as college classes can seem when you’re a student, most of us who teach those classes only have about forty hours over a semester not only to impart knowledge to our students, but also make sure that our students understand that knowledge well enough to be able to carry it on to their next classes (and, if we’re doing our jobs right, through the rest of their lives). Even when we “take a break” with a silly joke or a casual conversation, those moments are carefully calculated to allow students to get the quick break their minds and spirits need to tackle the next units we’re about to teach them. When you factor in all the things that we teachers have to cover, those forty or so hours don’t seem nearly long enough.

I deliberately make use of humour in my classes not only to provide students with those quick breaks their brains may need, but also because the topics we cover in my classes can be emotionally draining. As advantageous as I’ve found it to have students discuss their life experiences in my classes, that often leads to hearing about a lot of deeply disturbing incidents that my students have suffered through, and on top of having to absorb the weight of the burdens they unload, I also have to keep my classes under control, keep discussions civil, and make sure that all our activities link back to the concepts I need to teach them. (I truly love my job, but I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t, at least a good part of the time, mentally and emotionally exhausting.) A small laugh, when and where appropriate, is downright necessary for the mental health of everyone in my classroom, including (if not especially) me.

As we work through all these deep and complicated problems of the world we inhabit, I constantly have to strike a fine balance when it comes to shaping my students’ expectations. There’s only so much one person, or one group of students, can do to effectively and successfully change the world around them, especially when it comes to the truly intractable debates of our time. However, one of the first things I learned when I was studying up to be a teacher is that when you don’t teach that something is capable of being changed, then you teach, through your silence, that whatever thing you’re not talking about simply cannot be changed. What this often leads to, in my classes, is having honest discussions with my students about the dangers of trying to change something, especially when so many people have a deep and vested interest in keeping things the way they are, but also helping them work through their own risk-reward calculations for taking further action beyond writing a paper for me. For some people, staying silent on certain issues is far more painful than whatever repercussions may come as a result of speaking out on them.

I’m still making those calculations myself, especially as I continue researching my next book. That research took a very dark turn over this weekend, as I was forced to confront some of the abuse I endured from my previous teachers in a very painful way. I’ll have more to say about that when the time is right, but for now (and to get back to the point of this blog), let me say that a lot of the teachers I had when I was younger were constantly trying to squelch my own desires for change by any means necessary. “Shut up and take what you get because you deserve it” is just about the nicest way I can think of to phrase their attitudes towards me, and those teachers were not nice enough to be so civil with me.

For all the talk of “indoctrination” in education, too little attention is paid to the real damage that teachers who take that kind of attitude can do to their students. This can sometimes be inadvertent on a teacher’s part — I’m sure most of us have had that one teacher whom we could tell just plain gave up on life long before we ever reached their classroom — but sometimes it is a very active strategy, designed on their part to keep students “in line” with their own narrow beliefs. These strategies can be subtle, but especially for power-mad teachers enabled by sadistic administrators, sometimes it can be done right out in the open.

Setting aside the deep ethical issues involved in holding active shooter drills in schools, if these drills are going to be held at all, that raises the question of what purpose is served by having the people conducting them physically assault teachers, literally raising welts and drawing blood, while roleplaying their execution-style deaths. After all, with the exception of fantasy roleplaying, being “killed” pretty much stops you from engaging in any further roleplay, and if the point of these drills is to put participants in a “what would you do” scenario, being able to learn anything from those scenarios pretty much stops the moment a participant is “killed” by someone.

The only answer I can come up with is that the “deaths,” complete with real-life wounds, are designed to intimidate the teachers, just like schoolyard bullies get their way by assaulting the students around them and creating a culture of fear. Such a culture is horrifying when it comes to nurturing the possibility of change in students, and it’s no surprise that so much of what we’ve endured here in America for the past few years has revolved around similar attempts to make everyone afraid of everyone else, and to glorify the violence of the powerful while condemning even the meekest protests of the powerless. As I learned in my early years at school — from bullies and teachers alike — physical violence (or the threat of it) engenders fear like little else can.

Those teachers in Indiana were assaulted — there is no other word for it — and the people who shot them should be arrested and sent to prison for a very long time. There is no excuse for what they did, and allowing actions like these to go unpunished will only perpetuate the same power structures that empower bullies, no matter what their age or station. Allowing “drills” like this to be normalized will only hasten America’s descent into an authoritarian hellscape, and this is one area where all of us who care about the future of our country (and our world) must take the risk of speaking out against this kind of senseless brutality.

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