An open letter reflecting on school violence

What has changed and what must change if we hope to save the soul of our community, the public school.

by Bobbie Cavnar

NEA Foundation’s 2018 Top Public School Teacher, 2017 North Carolina Teacher of the Year, 12th Grade British Literature Teacher and Parent

I stood in my local grocery store counting copies of The Charlotte Observer. “One to send my parents in Florida,” I thought, “one to take to my classroom, one for home, one to send my brother…” I lost count and bought every copy they had. You see, I was featured on the front page of the newspaper that day, under the headline, “Once an outsider, Belmont’s star teacher named best in nation.” I could feel my face flush as I neatly stacked a pile of newspapers with my picture in front of the cashier and asked if I could have several plastic bags as a light rain had begun to fall.

I was eager to show the article to my students, but when the first class of high school seniors filed into my room, and I looked into their eyes, I knew the headline I needed to talk about was not my own. Rather, it was the headline that shared the front page: "Teen confesses to shooting, says he carried extra ammo.”

It was not only the stark contrast of these stories that struck me, but what these two stories represented to me. I began my teaching career with a student teaching internship at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the school where the shooting took place. Now, at the pinnacle of my career, to see that community shattered by violence, the dissonance turned my stomach. There I was, the “nation’s best” public school teacher, smiling up from the page, a useless jester, reciting poetry on a rutted battlefield.

At first, I turned to social media for answers and found nothing but tumult, every idea met with calls that such things were impossible, explanations of why it wouldn’t fix the problem, or just plain ridicule. Is this the new normal of teaching? Is it simply the unavoidable future of our nation?

Countless times I saw the same argument, “These things didn’t happen in my day because…” but the reasons that followed rang hollow to my ear. So, as in many of my darkest moments, I turned off the computer, and I went to my bookshelves. In the back of my classroom is a collection of school yearbooks going back more than 70 years. I pulled a few off the shelves and began looking at the faces of the children, hoping to see what changed in them, in us, that brought us to this point.

What I saw was that the kids never changed. Sure their hair and clothes altered with the decades, but in those black and white photos, I could still see the same hopeful eyes, gleeful smiles, sly mischief, goofiness and joy that I see every day in my classroom. However, though the kids never seemed to change, everything around them did. They went from graduating classes of 85 and high school populations below 500, to graduations housed in arenas for lack of seating and elementary schools nearing 2,000 students. How could anyone truly know these kids, I thought, know their neighborhoods, know what they go home to each night, know their families, when there can be 3,000 or 4,000 kids on a sprawling high school campus today?

In some old yearbooks I saw pictures of drama, Beta and glee clubs, bands and sports teams whose total participation amounted to nearly half the school. And I imagined trying out for one of a dozen spots on a soccer team, or in a school play, if I were one of 4,000 on a campus. I saw nurses in each school who kids could go to for care or help. Today a lone school nurse is spread out amongst four schools with a caseload in the thousands. I saw in these yearbooks how schools were once built in the center of their communities, and the faculty and children lived side-by-side. Today, there are many areas where teachers cannot afford to live in the community in which they teach. I visited one rural North Carolina school last year wherein not a single teacher lived in the district. A school was once the center of the community, and the students, faculty, nurses, counselors, custodians walked the same sidewalks each day. Today, it feels as if communities are turning and turning in this widening gyre, and there is no center to hold.

But of all the faded pictures I flipped through that day, the one that has stayed fixed in my mind was of Mrs. Hugh Lowe, who is listed on the faculty page as simply, “piano teacher.” There is an attempt today to measure the outcomes of every action in a public school, to ensure that the public is getting a good return on its investment. While I do not oppose this accountability, it has had the perverse consequence that only those things that can be easily counted seem to count for anything. Now, more than ever, it is vital that when we ask what is the value, we do not ignore those things with moral and emotional value. Science, technology, engineering, math - these are essential to move our nation into the future, but what will that future be if we lose our soul along the way?

The arts and humanities are how we learn to be human. We learn to see each other as fellow humans by listening to each others’ stories and feeling each others’ emotions. I don’t know if any of Mrs. Lowe’s students ever became professional pianists, but I am confident that the life-long value of having a piano teacher at a school would not be measurable by our current system. Thus, as our schools get larger, and our art departments continue to shrink, we are losing  our empathy. Children do not hate; one must be carefully taught to hate. But once a child is taught to hate, there is only one way they will learn to love, and that is to be carefully taught to love. That is why the humanities are so vital today. It is only in the humanities that we teach empathy, and it is only through empathy that we can heal our nation.

As I closed those yearbooks, I looked down at my worn, leather journal, and here is what I had written:

  • Build smaller schools

    • Allows more kids to be involved in school activities

    • Allows staff to really know the kids and families

    • Safer and easier to monitor as well

  • Teachers and staff should live in the community together with students’ families

  • Put a nurse in every school

  • Do not ignore the emotional and moral value of the humanities

  • Teach the arts as a means of teaching empathy and countering hate

I don’t have all the answers. Maybe I am just a fool, reading dusty yearbooks and glorifying the past. Maybe the days of community schools are over. But If nothing else, I know this: these are the the schools I want for my daughters. They are such nice little girls, I think they deserve it.

Teach Gently

Teachers, as another school year begins, let me tell you how much I envy you.  Since I will spend the year travelling as North Carolina Teacher of the Year, this will be the first time in 17 years that I will not be welcoming children into my classroom in the fall. Like a man who has left his phone at home and taps his pockets all day, I find myself reflexively putting school supplies in my cart.  School for me has been like electricity, a force which I never realized was so necessary in my life. But now, in this blackout, I wander the house flicking the switches, each time surprised by the dark. Like salt, light, water or warmth, school is a force in my life that only now, when I do not have it for the first time since I was 5, do I understand how vital it is in the lives of children.

For many of the children you meet at your door, this first day of school is a return to themselves, to stability, to “normal.”  For so many children, life outside of school is chaotic, sometimes violent, and full of need.  For those children, your classroom is a place where they are stable and safe, a place where they know they will be provided for and where someone cares about them. School for them, as it has been for me all my life, is “home” in the deepest sense of the word. A teacher may be the one person in a child’s life who greets them everyday with a smile, or who tells them they are talented, intelligent, beautiful.  For many of our students it is only a teacher who will see their value, and teach them to value themselves. For some, it is only at school where they know they are welcome. 

So, as this new school year begins, I urge you to teach gently. Give a kid a pencil if he needs one, not a lecture on being unprepared. The world is a hard enough place for children.  In a letter to his son’s teacher, Abraham Lincoln wrote, “To live in this world will require faith and love and courage. So, World, I wish you would sort of take him by his young hand and teach him the things he will have to know. Teach him — but gently, if you can.”  Like so many parents and teachers, Lincoln was keenly aware that this world is often no place for children, that the things our children need to know to survive it are dark and sad and often pessimistic.  But in that same letter, Lincoln urges his son’s teacher to, “Teach him that for every scoundrel, there is a hero, that for every crooked politician there is a dedicated leader. Teach him that for every enemy there is a friend.”  Lincoln believed that we do not have to steal a bit of innocence for every ounce of experience we give them of our grown-up world. 

By teaching gently in a world of numbers and data, metal and machines, we can make our schools a garden of kindness, humanity and hope so that, maybe, they will build a world just a little kinder than the one we built.  Teaching gently is hard, it often means putting away our own ego, forgiving when we have every right to punish, being generous even when others take advantage of it.  Teaching gently is hard, but we must remember that they are our children.  As Lincoln wrote about his own son, ““This is a big order, World, but see what you can do. He’s such a nice little fellow...”

I feel sorry for the coffee machine sometimes.

It is 7:00 am and I am talking to Mandi, my daughter’s daycare teacher, about how she loves green beans but will not eat her fruits, when the thought occurs to me that this may be the only teacher I speak to today.  In fact, this may be the only adult I speak to for the next nine hours.