Teaching in America: I’d Love To, But Not Right Now
In rural northeast Georgia, in the elementary school music classroom where I completed my student teaching internship in Spring 2022, there was a door to the main hallway but also another across the room that opened to the outside. I eyed that door every day. No one really had to tell me: out that door is where we’ll run if we ever need to. There was a lockdown drill that semester but I was absent; I’ve still never experienced one firsthand, like my students and my two daughters have many times.
I loved my stint as a student teacher, and I will always love my students. When I first read about the scene in Uvalde I thought of my students meeting this fate, and I crumbled. The students lost in Uvalde and Parkland and Sandy Hook could have been mine; the slain teachers could have been me. One girl who didn’t survive in Uvalde was named Tess Marie; our firstborn is Tess Mary.
Teacher certification candidates must undergo rigorous ethics training and evaluation. The Georgia online training and assessment takes nearly four hours; there’s an additional one required by the UGA College of Education. This training lays out commonsense boundaries and expectations, and probes us not only for knowledge of applicable laws but also soundness of mind and responsible character. We have to clear criminal background checks and purchase liability coverage before we can so much as set foot in a preschool. The idea that this elaborate oversight apparatus would then turn around and say to teachers, “Oh by the way, we’ll allow you to carry a concealed firearm while teaching the children of our community, we trust you” — as Patrick Radden Keefe of The New Yorker wrote the other day, it’s a waste of time trying to mount a rational argument against such clearcut absurdity.
There is no conceivable ethics training or liability policy that could begin to cover teachers carrying firearms, much less using them in a moment of terror and panic. Some advocates of arming teachers know this very well, but it doesn’t stop them spouting the party line. Many don’t know, because they understand nothing about teacher education and nothing about the work we do. And yet arming teachers is presented in the media as a “debate.”
Daniel Defense, the gun manufacturer that made the weapon used in Uvalde, is based in Georgia. The company became notorious after Uvalde for a tweet picturing a 2-year-old boy with a semiautomatic rifle, accompanied by a biblical quote from Proverbs. An image worthy of Islamic State fanatics and headchoppers. It’s an appalling example but it’s no aberration for Georgia’s far right and its enabling, all but synonymous GOP. District 9 Congressman Andrew Clyde owns the Clyde Armory on Rt. 78 in Athens, where we live; during the campaign he festooned his yard signs with the image of an AR-15.
On the other side of the state in the 14th is Marjorie Taylor Greene, who wielded guns in an ad and threatened to “blow away” the Democratic agenda. In the governor’s seat is Brian Kemp, who wielded a rifle in two different ads, the second one casually pointing it at a teenage boy (acting the part of Kemp’s daughter’s suitor). The threats and thuggery are everywhere, on the window decal of the pickup truck in the grocery parking lot, showing an AR-15 and “Come and Take It.”
The Georgia GOP has put in place some of the most grossly irresponsible gun policies ever: the 2014 “guns everywhere” law, the 2017 campus carry law, the 2022 permitless carry law signed by Kemp about a month before Uvalde. They’ve created this situation — they fought for it and very consciously brought it into being. And when we teachers bear the brunt of the resulting violence, their response is, “You fix it.”
In South Georgia in early May, sheriff’s deputies pulled over a bus carrying Delaware State University’s women’s lacrosse team. The officers’ conduct during the 45-minute traffic stop was appalling enough for Delaware’s attorney general to call for a federal civil rights investigation. (Delaware State is an HBCU and the majority of the lacrosse team and staff are Black.) Even as outrages like these continue in Georgia, there is simultaneously a right-wing campaign against the invented threat of “critical race theory” — which is to say, a campaign to demonize teachers who teach about systemic racism (precisely what is at issue with the abusive bus search). I know firsthand about having to wonder whether a teacher-led discussion on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day will result in blowback from book-banning far-right pressure groups like Moms for Liberty (whose Oconee County chapter head Julie Mauck is currently in a runoff for a school board seat here).
About a mile from where I taught, at the border of Oconee and Walton Counties, lies the Moore’s Ford Bridge. It was there in 1946 that two African American couples were stopped by a white mob, pulled from a car and dragged into the surrounding forest on the banks of the Appalachee River, where they were bound to trees and repeatedly shot. The Moore’s Ford Lynching is sometimes referred to as the last mass lynching in America. Not a single perpetrator has been identified or held accountable. The grand jury records remain sealed, despite decades-long efforts by justice advocates to unseal them. This is not “the past,” it is contemporary history. And students, especially ones sitting just a mile away from the crime, need to learn the truth about it. Anti-“woke” partisans insist that white children must be shielded from feeling “guilty,” but the truth is that all students in this part of Georgia need to understand the lived history in their backyard — often grim, yes, but also a galvanizing and beneficial learning opportunity. Better than growing up in a bubble of enforced ignorance and obliviousness, although some would disagree.
The right’s harassment campaigns against teachers (as it simultaneously rails against “cancel culture” and purports to champion free speech) have grown ever more extreme and out of control. Consider the story of Catherine Bass, the Mississippi teacher reprimanded and thrown under the bus for answering students’ questions about her sexual identity. Perversely, the school district wielded the state’s educator code of ethics against Bass, twisting its intended meaning to all but accuse her of attempting to engage in sexual conduct with students. This is of a piece with the right’s malicious “groomer” rhetoric — the ugly slander that teachers who run afoul of conservative ideology are pedophiles. This slur is being deployed by the right with no restraint whatsoever, and no sense of decency. School administrators kowtow to bigoted parents, and ultimately drive young and idealistic teachers like Bass from the profession.
About six weeks from this writing, I’m relocating with my family from Georgia, USA to Leeds, United Kingdom. My wife’s employment is the catalyst, but many factors played into our decision. Surely one of them is America’s gun culture and overall toxicity at the moment. What teacher wants to work in such an environment? I will grant that the UK too has problems: nonsense people in positions of power, historical crimes swept under the rug, racism and antisemitism, Brexit, all the rest. But teachers are valued, and far less vulnerable to the kind of culture war flak that exists in the States. Nothing is perfect and we’ll see how it goes.
The UK makes it very expensive to immigrate, and we are in a position of enormous privilege to do so. (King George III from Hamilton was right: “You’ll be back.” And you’ll pay a large sum, he might have warned.) Those of my friends, fellow teachers, mentors and classmates in Georgia who share my concerns will continue to show up to their jobs and give their everything, regardless of what transpires in the country around them. I don’t have the luxury of washing my hands of it all, because America is still my home. I want to see it overcome its current travails and I’ll do what I can from abroad to help. I will always love the community of Athens, which has a vibe and a musical culture unlike anything I’ve known before. I’ll miss the breathtaking scenery of Oconee, Walton and Morgan Counties, some of the most beautiful countryside I ever saw. Georgia is a wonderful and fascinating state — check out my friend and neighbor Chris Greer’s GPB series View Finders to learn more (disclosure: you’ll hear me and my friends in some of the background music). I don’t know if our English sojourn will last three years or 30, but I fervently hope the US corrects course so that returning becomes an enticing prospect.