Sunday, January 16, 2011

Teaching in the Wake of Violence

Though I hate to add to his growing notoriety, I cannot help but read all of the articles detailing the history of Jared Lee Loughner, the shooter at the Tucson, Arizona public meeting of representative Gabby Giffords.
I have similarly read the accounts of events leading up to other massacres like the Virginia Tech shootings and Columbine.  My interest is professional.  My questions to myself are "Would I recognize a disturbed mind in my classroom?  Would I be able to get help?"
The answer is found in the articles themselves. Often sited in the history is a teacher, or teachers, who have been disturbed enough by aberrant behavior to consult other professionals outside the classroom.  Yes. I would (and have, I think) recognize a disturbed mind in my classroom.  I admit that each violent event has increased my vigilance.
Would I be able to get help?
That is the part of the question that is unclear.
In all of the cases where I have rung the alarm - I can think of four since Columbine - the help for the students has been spotty.  It was easy enough to get a psychologist to come for an observation.  What happened next is what I cannot gauge.  I can only say, like our terrorism program where an absence of incidents is indicative of success, there have been no Columbines in my district--yet.
There have been cuts to budgets that mean fewer school-based psychologists than in the past.  The year following a recommendation which resulted in the entrance of a deeply depressed young man into the 'system,' the school-based psychologist position was cut.
I don't know what happened next.
The ability to recognize unusual behavior comes from years of seeing the vast swath of children and their typical behaviors pass through a classroom.  In the adolescent years, pinpointing behavior outside the norm can be easier for a teacher. In some respects, teenagers are aberrant by their very nature, but some are clearly more abnormal than others.
Parents, though their love for their child is beyond question, do not have this perspective on a particular age group.  Many are traversing the adolescent years for the first time as an adult.  They do not always know when acting out or listlessness is just the usual teen angst or something larger.  Against the backdrop of work with thousands of adolescents, the difference is clearer.
More and more, scanning the young people for potential mental health, drug abuse, and nutritional issues is part of the profession of teaching.  (A sad commentary on the state of our society, but that's for another day.)
The English classroom, where students may be encouraged to write about personal experiences, offers a unique window into the mind of a child.  These writings have occasionally emboldened me to tell parents "I think your child is abusing drugs"  and "Your son has an unhealthy obsession with firearms."  Not easy statements to share with a parent, but ones that are based on years of working with young women and men of a certain age.
The official viewpoint of some systems has been to ban all writing that involves violence.
This is a mistake.
Boys "act out" on paper many violent scenarios which are no indication of a diseased mind.  Thomas Newkirk and Ralph Fletcher have both studied boys and their writing lives and argued that squelching such writing out of a fear of escalating violence would cut off an opportunity for boys to work through their masculine roles and deal with the spectre of death in a manageable format. Doing so are all important activities for a healthy development.  Cutting off these opportunities means separating the boys further from adult mentors who can guide their development and address fears that boys are otherwise left to deal with alone.
Our boys' choice of genre and writing topics need to be embraced in school.  Rather than deny a boy's need to rehearse on paper their fundamental masculinity because it is not "school friendly" we should allow that expression and monitor it for unhealthy obsessions.
Believe me, to an experienced teacher, the difference is clear.