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Our Hearts Are Broken

Honoring those who died at Sandy Hook

All of us feel the pain of the parents, families, neighbors and friends of the children and educators who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Such senselessness is unfathomable. There are no words to describe the terror imposed not only on that community but also on the nation as a whole as we strive to safeguard our children.

Emerging from this horrible tragedy are stories that reveal so much about the teaching profession. Dawn Hochsprung, the principal at Sandy Hook, had won a global education grant to help her students better understand the world and appreciate differences. She and her teachers were implementing the Responsive Classroom program, a social development program that fosters classroom communities where respect, care and tolerance are the norm. She had just entered a doctoral program and written a paper on the courage to teach. Her awareness of the kind of school culture that supports students’ growth, her respect for the power of teaching, and her care for children were reflected in the actions of her teachers during this tragedy. Selflessly she sacrificed her own life attempting to stop the shooter.

Janet Vollmer, a kindergarten teacher, closed the window shades, quickly moved her children to a corner of the classroom, and then read softly to keep them calm. First grade teacher Kaitlin Roig shepherded 14 students into the class bathroom. Pushing a bookcase against the door for greater security, she told the children that she loved them and that everything would be OK. Fearing those would be the last words they would ever hear, she wanted to assure them they were loved. In the midst of the horror exploding around them, these teachers responded with care and thoughtfulness that put their children’s welfare first. Their actions say so much about the heart of a teacher. 

Educators at every level do this work first and foremost because we love children. There is something beautiful and intriguing about children — no matter who the children are, where they are from or what struggles they confront—that motivates and inspires us. We have an unquenchable desire to see all our students thrive, grow and reach their potential. There are few professions where that kind of passion can so constructively benefit our society. Through all the struggles and challenges, it is our hearts that bring us to this work and that sustain us over time.

Teaching is one of the most complex of all professions. Teachers must effectively manage the behavior of 25 or more children while engaging them in tasks that promote interest in learning and foster conceptual development. They must deeply understand their curriculum and then strategize about how to break knowledge into digestible chunks that bridge old learning to new. They have to study each student’s skill level so as to present appropriate instructional challenges that enable students to take their next learning steps. They must understand children’s backgrounds in order to foster culturally responsive classrooms. They need to create classroom climates of respect, exchange, and dialogue that teach social skills while expanding thinking skills. And each day they must be prepared to make hundreds of in-the-moment decisions to take advantage of what can be learned from any situation. 

Yet, the profession of teaching is grounded in our love of children, our desire to ensure their success, and our desire to make a difference in the world. The thrill of teaching is in watching a smile of understanding spread across the face of a student who struggled with a challenging problem. It’s in reading a paper in which a student articulates something of real meaning to him or herself. It’s in hearing students express themselves with the pride that comes from grasping an idea deeply. And it’s in sensing that connection with students, a supportive and trusting relationship that enables them to make mistakes and know that they are still valued and can learn from these mistakes. Tragically, 20 students and six staff members will no longer see those smiles or experience that sense of connection.

Amid the pain the nation has experienced, we should recognize that Sandy Hook stands as an example of the love and care that teachers and administrators everywhere offer students and the pain all educators feel when such a needless act of violence takes our children from us. Across the nation, educators are consoling students and families and trying to reassure them that people are basically good and that acts like this are rare exceptions. 

In the coming months there will be much discussion of the protective measures we must take and the buildings we must design to ensure that the tragedy in Connecticut never happens anywhere else. For now our hearts are broken. Perhaps the greatest memorial we can offer is to remember the caring and brave interactions that took place within the walls of Sandy Hook Elementary School—and to emulate those qualities in our own relationships with children of every age.