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‘Waiting for the next thing’: What it’s like teaching after a mass shooting

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On Wednesday morning, teachers and students nationwide filed into school hallways and classrooms less than 24 hours after news of another mass school shooting poured out of Uvalde, Texas. 

Students were required to take final exams, and teachers were expected to grade papers and continue instruction. From the outside, maybe it looked like business as usual. 

But a familiar pit in Chanea Bond’s stomach told her otherwise.

“I’ve seen my colleagues cry today,” said Bond on Wednesday. As an English and literature teacher in Fort Worth, Texas — nearly 350 miles from where 19 children and 2 adults were shot dead in a classroom less than a day earlier — Bond said she and her colleagues were experiencing emotions ranging from fear and helplessness to stress and nervousness. 

“We are balls of stress and balls of nervous energy, waiting for the next thing to happen,” she said. “All of our bodies are so exhausted. We’re not sleeping. So many of us are just struggling physically.” 

Yet, Bond and thousands of teachers like her across the nation had to carry on. 

“Because if I don’t, then everything falls apart.” 

Teachers traumatized ‘over and over and over again’

Nothing is new about the range of emotional, physical and behavioral side effects reported by educators across the nation in the wake of the Uvalde massacre. It is a ripple effect that many teachers have described experiencing after similar mass school shootings: Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Parkland, Sante Fe, Oxford.

That’s because those reactions are all symptoms of trauma response, according to Addison Duane, a former elementary school teacher with a Ph.D. in educational psychology and now a professor at Wayne State University. Duane’s research and expertise includes trauma and racism in schools.

The spectrum of impacts resulting from firsthand, secondhand and vicarious trauma after school shootings can vary from emotional ones like feeling loss of control, increased anger or increased aggression, to behavioral ones such as withdrawal. Physical symptoms may include headaches, stomachaches, and loss of sleep or appetite. 


“And no one is saying, ‘Hey, I see that this is really hard. I see this is impossible.’ It just feels like we have been asked to shoulder all of the burdens that come with being around young people.”

Chanea Bond

English and literature teacher in Fort Worth, Texas


Bond describes her ears ringing on the walk from her car to the school doors on Wednesday morning.

“Our bodies are living that trauma over and over and over again,” she said.

That trauma experienced after a school shooting can be layered on top of pre-existing traumas resulting from systemic racism, especially for those who work in or are members of communities that have been historically marginalized, like Black, Hispanic and low-income students.

Robb Elementary School is a case in point: It is 90% Hispanic and 87% economically disadvantaged, according to school district data.

Layering of trauma is now “a ubiquitous part of the U.S. experience,” Duane said. 

Against this backdrop, teachers are asked to keep on teaching. 

“And no one is saying, ‘Hey, I see that this is really hard. I see this is impossible,'” said Bond. “It just feels like we have been asked to shoulder all of the burdens that come with being around young people.” 

Teachers are also tasked with tending to the social and emotional health of the children they serve at the same time they are reporting higher levels of stress, burnout and fatigue themselves. 

“There’s going to be cascading impacts on those around us,” Duane said. “Think about a classroom setting that is often overcrowded and under-resourced — you name it. That trickle effect is very real and can lead to some pretty devastating impacts for the children in those spaces.” 

Students experiencing a ‘slow-rolling trauma’

When then-seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Kleybold opened fire in Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999 — killing 15 and injuring 24 — the incident was recorded as the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. 

Educators now, many of whom were in elementary or middle school at the time, recall it as unfathomable. 

Over two decades later, the incident is now considered the fourth-deadliest, surpassed by Sandy Hook in 2012, Parkland in 2018, and Uvalde this week. 

In nearly one decade since the last elementary mass shooting, in Newtown, Connecticut, there have been over 900 incidents of gunfire reported on school grounds, according to the White House. 

And as teachers see themselves represented in national headlines with death tolls, so too do their students. 

The result, teachers worry, is a generation of students becoming increasingly desensitized to violence. 

“The brutality is in front of their faces,” Bond said. 

A child crosses police caution tape after a mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas that left 21 dead, including 19 children.

Brandon Bell via Getty Images

 

Many of these same students have also recently lost family members, friends and neighbors to the COVID-19 pandemic.


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