Watches & Warnings Warnings

Teachers' lessons in heroism and healing

Teachers' lessons in heroism and healing
Suzanne Haley
News
Monday, May 27, 2013 - 5:54pm

On page 73 of the elementary school handbook in Moore, Oklahoma, among entries about chewing gum and bicycles, there's a warning about the weather.

"Sudden tornadoes are a common occurrence in Oklahoma, especially in the spring," it cautions. "Teachers should strive to maintain an atmosphere of orderliness and calmness."

Indeed, they knew just what to do last week as a massive EF5 tornado approached. Children crouched along interior walls, faces down, legs tucked, fingers woven over their necks. They bunched into closets or huddled beneath their desks. Teachers positioned themselves between the kids and the howling, quaking wind they heard coming.

At Briarwood Elementary School, Tammy Glasgow told her second-graders she loved them as she shut the doors to the bathrooms where they sheltered.

First-grade teacher Waynel Mayes commanded her kids to sing "Jesus Loves Me" over the roar of the wind - to scream it if they needed to.

When the walls quivered at Plaza Towers Elementary School, principal Amy Simpson shouted "In God's name, go away, go away!," again, again, again, until the tornado had.

But gone, too, in the aftermath were Briarwood and Plaza Towers schools, decimated into a tangle of bricks, desks, school books and mud. Seven Plaza Towers students died in the rubble. All of Briarwood's students survived, along with thousands more around the district.

At a news conference late last week, Simpson recounted, "Not one parent blamed us ... because they're Oklahomans, too, and they know what a tornado means, and they know what it means in school."

They know, just as she does, that teachers were watching over their children.

"The teachers," Simpson said, "were able to act quickly, stay calm and take literally the weight of a wall onto their bodies to save those that were under them."

After years of political beatdowns and public backlash, educators have emerged as heroes time and time again in recent months.

It happened at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, where six educators died along with 20 students when a gunman burst in.

Again in Taft, California, where a teacher stood before a 16-year-old shooter who had already wounded a student and persuaded him to hand over his shotgun.

Another time in January, when a school bus driver in Dale County, Alabama, died while blocking an armed kidnapper from snatching multiple children from his bus.

Even last week, when Ingrid Loyau-Kennett approached a man wielding a bloody meat cleaver on a busy street in London. She calmly kept the man talking until police arrived. Loyau-Kennett hadn't trained for this, exactly, she told ITV's Daybreak, but said she used to be a teacher.

As the man with the butcher knife spoke, she said she thought of a school nearby that would soon release children in the middle of the gruesome scene. She said it was more important to keep talking than to worry for herself.

"Better me than the child," Loyau-Kennett said.

Press and parents call them heroes, angels, saviors.

"She's a member of our family for the rest of our lives, and she'll be a part of it forever," Moore resident David Wheeler said of teacher Julie Simon, whose arms shielded his son as the monstrous tornado passed.

The praise is a change in tone, but delivered by tragedies that will haunt teachers all over.

"We are rightly taken by the fact that some teachers risked their lives and gave their lives," said David Steiner, dean of Hunter College's School of Education and a former New York state education commissioner. "We should just shut up and admire (them)."

Still, he wonders, how long does awe last, and what comes after?

Does the teacher who almost lost her life get sufficient planning time for class? Will a reconstructed building bring resources for an educator to try new curricula? Is there a monetary reward that might entice a low-paid teacher to stay? Will there be counseling to help educators recover from a crisis?

And what about those who can dazzle in the classroom but haven't faced down a tornado or talked down a gunman? What about those teachers who save children's lives in quieter ways every day?

"I worry about the answer," Steiner said. "You shouldn't have to be a hero to be a respected teacher."

Just doing their job

In the minutes before the tornado hit Briarwood Elementary, special education aide Suzanne Haley's students ducked beneath desks while teachers hovered above to block debris.

"It sounded like a jet, low, coming closer and closer," Haley said.

Minutes later, she and others were jammed in the wreckage of the school, conscious, but struggling to move. She couldn't free her leg; it was impaled by a metal stake recently attached to a student's desk.

"By the grace of God, I kept it together," Haley said. "I couldn't go into hysterics in front of my children, in front of the other students. Not even till after surgery, after I came out of anesthesia, did I lose it.

"These children, we see their smiles, we see their tears every day, in and out. We love them, and they're our babies.

"It's nothing anybody wouldn't do."

In Newtown, in Moore, any time a headline speaks of a hero teacher, the educators inevitably accept thanks and deflect the praise. Some lament that they couldn't prevent students' injuries or react before the first shot.

The response is just part of the job, educators say.

"They're probably much less comfortable in the spotlight and more comfortable in the classroom," said Gregg Garn, dean of the University of Oklahoma's Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education in Norman, which has hundreds of alumni working in Moore's schools.

And they're right: It is part of the job. School safety and crisis response is a constant discussion in every school, especially since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, which left one teacher and 14 students dead, including the two gunmen.

Safety comes up in prospective teachers' college courses, Garn said, and it's one of their first lessons when they take over a classroom. In most schools, there's explicit, site-specific instruction on where to go in case of a fire, how to lock down during a shooting and how to stay safe during a natural disaster.

"They're willing to put themselves in harm's way," he said. "What you saw (in Moore) was just a reflection of that."

Any time there's a story of a school in crisis, other schools around the country evaluate their own teachers' plans, their unique what-ifs, educators said. In Moore, the conversation is well underway.

Robert Romines, the assistant superintendent for Moore schools, supports adding storm shelters to all schools, but said "money is an obstacle." New schools will be rebuilt on the sites destroyed last week, and he hopes those, at least, will have the budget for safe rooms.

District administrators said the tornado procedures laid out in their handbook and crisis plans worked, for the most part.

"We have 23 sites where the faculty and staff just went above and beyond to protect 23,000-plus children in our district," said Romines, who takes over as superintendent in July. "It was a miracle in how they handled things."

Rebuilding, he said, is "the beginning of our healing process."

But teachers who've survived traumatic events say there's more to healing than that.

Hard lessons learned

School was just ending for the day when David Benke heard the pop of a firecracker. He was on parking lot duty at his Colorado middle school in February 2010 and took off toward the noise, fuming at the careless students who would do something so stupid. That's when he saw the man reloading a rifle.

Children scattered as the gunman got off another shot, sending one of Benke's students to the snowy ground. The then-57-year-old teacher bolted a few more yards, tugged at the man's clothes and wrapped his own arms and leg around the shooter. An assistant principal charged outside and grabbed the rifle by the strap. Inside the school, teachers hauled students to safety, crawled along the carpeting to check that doors were locked and, afraid to even crack an ice tray, pressed Popsicles against another student's wound.

Law enforcement was there in about 90 seconds and peeled Benke off the shooter. The teacher and others were hailed as heroes. Reporters tailed Benke's wife as she drove to meet him, and flocked to a news conference where he shared the story. He still has a grateful voicemail from the former governor and keeps education secretary Arne Duncan's number in his phone.

What he remembered, though, was the sight of a student bleeding in the snow, gasping -- a student whose pain he hadn't prevented.

"You've got to understand that right after, I thought I'd messed up," Benke said. "It wasn't until I was leaving and there was this sheriff's guy ... he said, 'You did good work today.' "

Students and teachers were back in school within a few days, he said, handing out cookies in the space where a gunman tried to kill their classmates; both injured students survived. For a while, it was impossible not to think of it in class.

"You try to get a little bit of effort out of a kid that's basically doing nothing, you can legitimately say 'You know there are people here who would walk through fire for you,' " Benke said. " 'Why aren't you holding up your end?' "

Three years later, it's ancient history for most students, but not for him.

He thinks about it a little every day. He's diligent about locking doors and keeping watch. He can still envision the people he saw standing over him on the ground -- the teachers, parents, bus driver and maintenance worker ready to pounce if he lost his grip on the gunman.

"I finally realized why I kind of get emotional and mist up," Benke said. "It's not because I'm afraid or anything like that. It's because I'm just so damn proud of the people that I work with, and the kids."

Just as in the days after the shooting, a counselor checks with him whenever there's news of a school shooting or even a simple drill that might trigger a traumatic memory.

It's an unusual response, Benke thinks, but then, his district is especially prepared for crisis: His middle school is just miles away from Columbine High School.

In fact, few teachers who witness school violence are offered counseling, said Edward Mooney, a California high school teacher and Northeastern University doctoral student who studies the effect of school violence on teachers.

After disturbing events such as a shooting, many teachers struggle with post-traumatic stress. It can be disabling, and made worse by administrators who want to move on, avoid the topic, "basically the treatment of 'You'll get over it,' " Mooney said.

Mooney has taught for more than 20 years, and with every tale of teachers' heroism -- whether Moore, Newtown or events that hardly make national news -- he worries about how few resources exist for them.

"The teacher feels overwhelming anguish. Those are empathetic, compassionate people," Mooney said. As he wrote his dissertation, he thought of his own colleagues and especially his students. "'What if it happened to him? Or her?' That would shatter me."

A nurturing school climate and support system for teachers who've experienced violent trauma can help, Mooney said, but it seemed like a tough culture to create amid the budget cuts and teacher bashing of the past few years.

"We have this unusual relationship with young people that many other people in professions don't have," Mooney said. "I hope society and districts see that."

Benke, the Colorado math teacher, is on the verge of retirement. After more than 30 years of algebra, he said, it's time to try something new.

He wants to lobby for some changes to teacher certification renewal. He'd like it to include first aid courses or self-defense classes, easy additions he said would cost nothing and keep students safer. He wants legislators to respect teachers for their academic expertise, but also as first responders, who need a clear emergency response protocol. He's writing about what happened in the middle school parking lot, maybe a book.

It was an intense few minutes, he said, but then, teaching is an intense business.

There' no handbook for how to motivate an apathetic middle school boy, to discover a girl abused at home, to know whose mom is dying of cancer, who is smarter than her homework suggests, who responds best to a lecture in the hallway or who needs a hug.

"That's a whole lot more lasting than whether they remember the quadratic formula," Benke said. "I used to think my job was to try to get as much math in kids' heads as I could.

"Then, I realized, what I did was build people."

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