Schools Should Stay Soft
Photo taken by Chandler Collins, originally published in the Cavalier Daily.
When I was in elementary school, I would anxiously wait for the letter that would decide my fate for the next 9 months: which teacher I would have. Throughout anything that could happen in a year, my teachers remained a constant and defining presence. In third grade, I had a brand new teacher, fresh out of college, who wore Abercrombie chinos and carried the same pattern of Vera Bradley lunchbox as me. I obsessed--I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. A year later, I would have a teacher who taught both my brothers before me and had a big classroom with a rocking chair. She would ask me about Laura Ingalls Wilder books and tell us stories about her family. In high school, one teacher would go out of his way to congratulate students on their accomplishments, keeping up with all of our sports and newspaper mentions, and always let us go to his room during study hall to meet up with friends.
All of these anecdotes are glimpses into a lifetime of experience that defined my impression of teachers. Certainly there are faculty members who are imperfect, and the public school system is flawed, but I like to believe that teachers genuinely care about their students. (I may be biased because my mom is a teacher, and I’ve seen first-hand the work that goes in behind the scenes and after school hours.) Teachers are stressed and tired, certainly, but it’s hard to imagine going into an often underappreciated job without having a sense of passion for it.
Perhaps one reason why teaching is undervalued is it is traditionally seen as a woman’s job, especially when the students are of a young age. Even today, the majority of teachers are female (and white), which sets up teaching and schools to be emblematic of a certain type of femininity associated with such women. Picture Miss Honey from Matilda--these women are the ones that history and the media tells the dominant group, white men, to protect because they are delicate and incapable of doing so themselves.
However, white males also constitute the majority of school shooters. In contrast with the femininity of teachers, these shooters are affected by toxic masculinity. A boy like the Parkland shooter, who exhibited emotional and behavioral issues throughout his education, did not find success in a public school system and possibly felt disenfranchised and threatened by (white) female teachers who are “supposed” to be inferior to him. To assert his masculinity, he turned to guns and violence and resisted any attempts at emotional approaches to change his behavior. We often see men suffering from toxic masculinity abuse women to restore feelings of dominance, and this can be translated to school shooters attacking a traditionally weak female space.
Many people argue that because schools are gun-free zones, they are easy or “soft” targets. A notable comment came from President Trump right after the Parkland shooting, that we must “harden” schools in order to protect them. What he’s saying is to insert masculinity into the space through the power that guns have always been representative of, something that would alter the way schools function. Trump suggests “highly adept people” should take on this role, people who are experts in “weaponry.” For me personally, the idea of having schools hire experts on weaponry instead of experts on violence prevention or emotional counseling seems like the wrong approach to a crisis revolving around toxic masculinity. Rather than using guns and arming teachers as a way of inserting masculine components into a space that is ideally caring and fosters growth, we should focus on enhancing the more traditionally feminine qualities associated with schools. And these things don’t have to be feminine--open-minded, constructive communication and attention to positive health and well-being, body, mind, spirit are qualities everyone should work to cultivate. From the start, we should want children to appreciate and be receptive to the kind and supportive role that teachers play instead of them finding it threatening or unimportant.
We probably all have experienced the embarrassment that comes with instinctively referring to a teacher as “Mom” or “Dad.” And thinking about it now, that’s not a bad thing. Besides our parents, teachers are some of the most influential and salient people in our lives throughout childhood and adolescence. We should want them to be caring and empathetic, to take interest in our lives and serve as mentors. These qualities are not inherently feminine but they are construed as weak and ineffective by people who value power over emotional wellbeing. The extension of schools as a home-like atmosphere is not negative--we should embrace the “soft” side of education by funding counseling programs and paying teachers an appropriate wage for the amount of work they do. The money that it would take to instill schools with emblems of power and masculinity would go farther in other areas that are desperately underfunded.
My brother and his friends, being rowdy fourth-graders with too much energy leftover from recess, tried to see how many kids could stand on the rocking chair at one time and subsequently broke it. A couple parents of the class members helped pull money to buy a new one as a class gift. Three years later, when I got to the same classroom, his name along with all his other classmates’ that year were immortalized on the bottom. Names in remembrance of redemption and lessons learned, not punishment and violence. Trying to imagine my public school experience with all its pressures, pressures that only increase with age, surrounded by guns and rotted with an omnipresence of power reminds me that the most important aspects of my education were the ones filled with warmth and forgiveness and growth. Giving into these positive aspects make schools more powerful than guns ever could.