We Just Want To Be Safe

Time has passed, and I’ve worked through my stages of grief after yet another school shooting.

Schools must be safe places, places where students feel safe to be themselves, to try and fail, to learn and grow. Students should not be afraid to show up.

But recent events say otherwise. From the tragedies to the threats intended as jokes, students are not feeling safe.

Listen to their voices.

It is not just a political problem. It is not just a mental health crisis. To cast the problem off in that light places blame. It is not my intent to point fingers at any individuals or groups. We will find a solution only when we look forward rather than look back. We must work together and stop pointing the fingers of blame.

Reality Checks:

1. Nothing we will do will prevent every school shooting. Strict DUI laws do not prevent some people from drinking and driving. But they prevent many, and they save lives.

2. Solutions take time. Let’s agree to give ourselves the gift of time.

3. We won’t get it “right” the first time, or the second. But we must do something. Then fix it, and fix it again. To do nothing out of feeling that nothing we do will solve the problem is no longer acceptable.

4. We are dealing with a paradox. Factors leading to the incidents are both simple and complex. The solutions must be also.

5. Nobody is coming to knock on your doors and take your guns away. But if you are more worried about losing your gun as a result of a mass shooting than you are about the loss of innocent lives…


In Winter, 2000, I was working for the Department of Defense Education Activity, assigned to the school district at Fort Knox, Kentucky. My primary assignment was in Curriculum and Staff Development. But I also wore the hat of “Anti-Terrorism/Force Protection Officer” for the base school system. That role required a security clearance and a lot of training that wasn’t part of my administration preparation program. Because of the nature of our system, it is safe to assume that we had some plans and procedures in place besides the fire drills, etc that every school had at that time.

I was part of the planning team for a post-wide anti-terrorism exercise that would take place in Summer, 2001. It was loosely based on the Columbine shooting. Our team spent 6 months studying the events that led up to that morning, what happened that day, and the months that followed. We were able to examine the shooters school lives, we watched the video from inside and outside the building, listened to the 911 calls, news footage shot that day, law enforcement communications and response. The after-action report was almost as long as War and Peace.

I was still in that role on September 11, 2001. Between the time of the 2nd tower crash and the crash into the Pentagon, the threat level on post jumped from the lowest level to the highest. Fort Knox was under credible threat of an imminent attack. Part of the response protocol at the highest level was the placement of armed soldiers inside each school building, and patrolling outside on each campus.

We were reacting to events, and secure in our confidence that we were as prepared as possible. Procedures were in place, and everyone was implementing our plans.

While we felt secure, we did not feel safe.  No amount of practice can replicate the emotions and adrenaline rush of an actual event. Trust me, been there, done that.

So what are your solutions, Gary? Seems like you have a bit of first hand experiences to draw from that most of us, fortunately, don’t.

This may fly in the face of conventional wisdom and/or popular opinion. So be it.

1. We do not need school staff to be armed. The worst kept secret in a school will be which staff are the winners in the “concealed carry lottery.” They will likely become the first targets of a planned event. Responders to an active shooter incident will not know who they are, and, as many have told me during trainings, “When we enter a building in search of an active shooter, anyone with a gun is going down.” They are highly trained to respond to these types of events, they don’t need marginally trained amateurs roaming the halls with a weapon. Run, lock, fight is fantastic. Don’t expect educators to become first responders in the heat of the moment.

One lesson learned in trainings with the DOD was about the physiological effects that occur in live fire scenarios. Adrenaline surges, blood pressure escalates at a rapid rate and breathing become very erratic. In times of chaos, it takes a tremendous amount of focus to just breathe. Erratic breathing leads to erratic shooting. Missing your target by an inch or two in a crowded setting can have a devastating and deadly effect. What I have seen thus far about arming teachers is that they would get minimal training and be required to certify on a target range once or twice a year by putting a few rounds into a silhouette target. Not too tough. The target isn’t moving, it isn’t threatening to shoot back, hearing protection is being worn, breathing and heart rates are normal, all focus is on the task. Staff would certify with hand guns.

The reality of  an active shooter situations is very different. The target will be moving, shooting back, and most likely will have a more powerful weapon than the handgun. The likelyhood of casualties due to friendly fire is extremely high.

We can do better.

Put another way, every school has rules prohibiting throwing rocks on the playground. Yet, in every school, there are still a few kids who throw rocks on the playground. The solution is not to give all the other kids a rock to throw back. Hence the paradox, complex yet simple…

2. Reasonable gun control legislation, including banning devices that can transform a legal weapon into a weapon of mass destruction, must be enacted and strenuously enforced. I am not going to enter into any discussion about the definition of an assault rifle, it serves no purpose. When it is your child’s school which is being attacked, and you cannot reach your child because their cell phone was left in a classroom or locker during an evacuation; when you are sitting in your office or classroom and hear the sound of rapid gunshots and the cries of victims; when you are called to the scene to help with identifying the deceased victims, the parsing of language is meaningless. The membership of the NRA is overwhelmingly in favor of reasonable gun control laws leading to gun safety. In my peronal opinion, it is the leadership of the NRA who need to listen to the voices of their members, to the majority of the American people, and the cries of those who can no longer speak for themselves.

3. Enforce existing laws. Many mechanisms and procedures are already in place, if only all of us would follow them. Hindsight is is always 20-20. Let’s all learn from the past, heed the warning signs, and act both proactively and responsibly in the future. The video really captures how the system should work, hopefully, in the future, it will.

4. The world has changed since we were the ages of our students. As I have written before, we are no longer responsible for only teaching them, we are now, in many cases, raising them. Our roles, as must the roles of others in our communities, must change to meet the changing needs. We need school counselors who spend less time building schedules and checking off boxes on college admissions forms and more time with students who need their particular expertise. Given the capabilities of our LMS, scheduling has become a clerical task, it doesn’t require an advanced degree. Every teacher at the secondary level can work with their students on the post-secondary stuff. The models are there, I was principal of one school where we pulled it off. And let’s face it, given the student/counselor ratios in most of our schools, the teachers know the kids, and their dreams, better than the the counselors ever can. We need school psychologists who spend less time testing kids, and in meetings explaining the testing, and more time with kids who are screaming for their unique expertise. We need social workers in every school who can address student and family issues rather than armed guards patrolling the hallways. We need to find ways for teachers to spend more time building relationships, teaching and guiding learning.

Mostly, we need communities to trust the decisions of those to whom they send their most valuable possessions, their children. Things must change. Life is not worth living if we have to live with the fear of what may happen simply because the kids go to school, tomorrow.

And so it goes…

Bulletin Board Material

Back when I was smart, got to hang around with the good people at Microsoft every once in a while, including Bill. Had their ad slogan posted on my office whiteboard as a reminder of what we were about in our school: “What have you done to change the world today.”

We have the opportunity to do that, every day.

Today, I would have something else on my whiteboard.

“Let’s make a memory today.”

Will will do that, every day.

Just make sure it is a positive one.

And so it goes..

Best Evaluation – EVER

The common topic for the Compelled Tribe is evaluations.

During my career, I have been Hunterized, Marzano-ized, Danielson-ized, and MCREL-ized on various models of teacher evaluation.

Yet we are still looking for the best tool.

Do we really know what we want, what we are looking for? Are we looking for teacher inputs? Student outcomes? Student outputs? Education is a life-long process, can we really measure our effectiveness during a specific school year?

My career began by teaching junior high students band and orchestra in Kansas City,  Kansas. After my first 2 years in the school, our principal was retiring. Our new principal had worked in one of our feeder elementary schools, and the “music teacher network” was buzzing about him in order to give our Choir director and I, both relatively new teachers to the district, a heads up about what we could expect. I will admit, he had large footprints to fill. My first principal understood the value of the arts and was very supportive of our music programs.

The word on the street was that the new principal, Dr. Harold Frye, “couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but would support the program.”

Fair enough.

Being new to our school, policy required Dr. Frye to observe every teacher, regardless of whether we were scheduled for formal evaluation that year or not. At a staff meeting early in the year, he invited us to schedule him in to observe a class of our choosing.

I signed him up to observe a beginning strings class. We had just started using the bow, and I am confident that dogs within a three block radius of our school were going nuts for a couple of weeks.

At the appointed time, Dr. Frye came into class with a violin. He spent the period sitting with the other violin students and did everything they were doing, and I must admit, about as well as they did.

At our post-observation conversation, he shared that he knew little about how to teach music, but one of his sons was taking Suzuki violin lessons. That explained everything. In the Suzuki program, the parents take the lessons alongside their children. He was thrilled that I had signed him up for beginning strings class, as he felt that his skills and abilities were at about the same stage of proficiency as the rest of the class.

Then he said something I have never forgotten, “If you taught it to me, you probably taught it to them.”

One thing really struck me that day. He was more concerned with what the students learned than he was with my teaching behaviors. That wasn’t how the “game” had been played before, my formal evaluations were about what I was doing, not what the kids were producing. In my administrative preparation coursework, the old rules still applied, let’s observe the teacher more than we observe the learners.

DISCLAIMER: I taught a performance based class. Several times a year, my students performed in front of an auditorium filled with parents. While they weren’t “trained” evaluators, they knew if we sounded good or not. And they believed that the quality of our performance was a direct result of my abilities as a teacher. Music teachers all realize that our groups are only as good as our worst player, so our worst player better be pretty good. We have a standard of acceptable performance that every player must achieve. Anything below “proficient” was not acceptable. Now we call it “personalized, individualized instruction.” Back in the day, we called it survival.

That year with Dr. Frye was truly a joy. He certainly filled the footprints. I left the district after that year as my father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I took a job much closer to home in order to spend quality time with him.

As a principal, I tried never to forget what Dr. Frye taught me. Regardless of the model used in our district, it’s always about what the kids learn and can do. I hope that, like him, I was secure enough in my skills to be able to place myself in the “violin section” whenever I was in a classroom. If the teacher taught it to me, the kids probably learned it as well.

I am not convinced that there is a Holy Grail of Evaluation. We appear to be looking for a short term solution to a long term process. We seek engagement and too often confuse it with activity, never acknowleging empowerment. We give the learners answers to remember rather than problems to be solved. Life does not consist of situations with only one right answer, but our classrooms are filled with them.

We have all read volumes about what skills our students need in order to be successful after they leave us. They tend to focus on what we call the “soft skills.” But we don’t find them in our models of teacher evaluation.

You might want to try this exercise at an upcoming staff meeting, I used it in teacher trainings for years. Ask your teachers to think of the “best teacher they ever had as a student.” Then ask them to think of the one quality that set that teacher apart from every other teacher they ever had. Go around the room and list the one quality. Compare that list to the qualities you are looking at when you do an observation. I guarantee that you will find few matches.

The qualities provided by the teachers list what I have always called the “art” of teaching. It will include things like, “had a sense of humor,” really got to know me”, “cared about all of us,” things I don’t believe you can teach in preparation programs, simply because you can’t fake that stuff in front of a bunch of kids.

The qualities listed on your evaluation instrument are what I have always called the “science” of teaching. Those are things we can address in professional development.

But do they really matter, when we look at our classrooms from the “violin section?”

End the exercise by challenging your teachers, as they plan for their next class, to become the best teacher they ever had. After all, when the layers of the onion are peeled, that person had a lot to do with their decision to become a teacher in the first place.

I was honored more than once to work with staffs composed of both young teachers and some with some experience. The “best teacher I ever had” shared by a younger teacher happened to be one of the veteran teachers in the room. They had never shared that feeling with one another.

Talk about the power we have as teachers!

And that is the best evaluation – ever!

And so it goes…