After yet another school shooting, this one killing 17 of our young people, I already had a post written. I wrote it three months ago after a shooting at an elementary school in California. The week before that, there was a shooting at a church in Texas, and before that the mass murder at a concert in Las Vegas. And, less than a month before that the shooting happened in nearby Rockford, Washington, at Freeman High School. I already wrote about that one, too, for my first post on this site. That in itself is upsetting. In the first four months of my tenure as Teacher of the Year, I’ve already had occasion to write about these atrocities too many times. But, the most upsetting thing is that this keeps happening.
We closed 2017 with over 270 mass shootings, many of which occurred at our schools, and we’re working to break that record in 2018. When these horrors happen we focus on the things we think we can change. We want gun laws and regulations (which I agree we need), we want more armed security guards and metal detectors (which I do not agree we need), anything that allows us to believe we can control our environments. Walking through a metal detector is like taking cough syrup. It makes us feel better, but it doesn’t actually solve the problem, it only alleviates the symptoms, while the underlying condition gets worse.
We must look deeper. What makes a person take up arms and turn them on their fellow human beings? It’s disconnection. It’s feeling powerless. This is the root of the problem and much more complicated to fix than installing security devices or keeping our kids inside. It requires time and investment. People feel the most safe when they know they are connected to the people around them, they feel welcome, and they have a sense of empowerment, like they can affect change in their own lives.
I recently saw this in action in Denisha Saucedo’s classroom at Kent Elementary in Kent, Washington. Ironically, when I first arrived, the class was preparing for a lockdown drill (often referred to as an active shooter drill). I watched Denisha cover the windows and the kids find their places against the wall. The lights were turned off and the doors locked, then everyone was quiet for what felt like an eternity. After the all clear finally came over the loud speaker, class proceeded like any other day. I could dwell on this, the normalcy of lockdown drills. The fact that it’s just another part of students’ days. But, that’s already apparent and been discussed more eloquently elsewhere. Instead, I’ll focus on the community and the connections Denisha builds in her classroom to help her students see their own power, beauty, and potential and that of their classmates.
Denisha’s classroom is nothing short of inspiring. Her walls are covered with her students’ goals, both academic and personal, and inspirational messages, telling them that they are the leaders in their own lives. “Make it happen” and “If you believe you can you will!” She explained to me that the students in her class represent a wide range of abilities, but she has them all reading grade-level texts, by providing them appropriate access points, and strategies for comprehension. I see it in action and watch the class navigate a difficult text about California wildfires. Every student is working and engaged, and no student gives up, because they all believe they can do this work. Denisha circulates throughout the room, asking questions and empowering her students to find the answers for themselves. They feel supported, confident, and safe.
Later in the day, the STOMP team (Denisha is the advisor/coach) does an impromptu performance for me during their lunch hour. They are a little nervous, but after a couple of minutes they dance and stomp with confidence and excitement, so proud of their choreography and of their team.
After the room cleared, I got to see a bit of Denisha’s magic in connecting with students. A sullen boy had come in and sat at the back table. He was their to refocus after having insulted a classmate in another room. Denisha sat with him and gently helped him articulate what happened. I asked if I should leave the room, that maybe he’d be more comfortable if I wasn’t there. Denisha explained that she didn’t the know the student either and that I should stay, it’s part of the process. Here she was with a boy she didn’t know, building a connection. By the close of lunch, after opening up about what happened, and eating his lunch with an amazing Paraeductor, the student had processed and learned from his mistake, and made two new connections in that classroom.
Denisha Saucedo shows us how to help students feel safe in our schools. She creates an environment in which students feel welcome, and safe, and that they are wanted, that their voices matter, and that they belong. She encourages students to look beyond their own experiences, practice kindness, and get to know one another, to see the value in their classmates. It is only through connections, like Denisha makes with her students, that we will stop wanting to hurt one another. When we recognize that our differences make us interesting and that we all add beauty to the world, that is when our communities and our schools will feel and be safe. Thank you, Denisha, for showing us a safe and empowering classroom.
*See my interview with Denisha to hear about her strengths, lessons learners, and her message to educators, decision-makers, and the community.