One Teacher's Response To Children Who Kill

(Article published in The Seattle Times, June 4, 1998)


In the wake of the carnage, every parent and teacher is wondering what to do. It is the most popular question on the media, in the faculty rooms, in the bedrooms after the kids go to sleep. What can we do to stop this madness? Our children are killing each other in record numbers. Our children are bringing rifles and handguns to schools and are killing principals, teachers and their classmates. Our children.

I do not know why the children have begun killing, but I do know what I am going to do about it. I have been a public high school teacher for nine years. I am a parent. There are certain things I can do for the children around me, things I have learned in my years in the classroom and my years as a parent. I have certain fundamental beliefs about children, and now, more than ever in my life, I am going to revisit those beliefs and apply them every time I am in contact with a kid.

Teachers frequently see things they cannot explain. They sense trouble, or the possibility for trouble. This awareness of what is inside of the kids is the core of what we do. This sensitivity to how kids look or feel or act is more important than our mastery of the subject matter we teach. The truth is, our first job is to watch over the kids and make sure they are OK. Then, when our classrooms are safe and our kids are OK, we teach the curriculum. If we fail in our first job, we cannot accomplish the second.

So it was in my classroom when I began to notice that one of my students was making some changes. Nothing big. The grades slipping a little, tardies, missing a few days of school. The look in the eyes was not quite right. Not the usual sharp glance and quick smile. There was a problem in those eyes, but I did not know what it was. This was a nice kid.  I did not know her well, but she was normally a friendly, happy girl. But she was changing.

Like all teachers, I understand how critically important it is to find some kind of meaningful activity for kids during the first two or three hours after school. I suspected this was the cause of the trouble. She had been on the soccer team fall quarter, but was not involved in a winter sport.  I had watched her play soccer, so I complemented her on how fast she could run. I told her she should go out for the track team. She was happy to receive the complements, but not quite ready to go out for track. Finally, I used the oldest teacher trick in the book. I told her that if she would go out for the track team, I would come to the meets and watch her run. She looked at me for about ten seconds and then said if I would watch the meets, she would join the track team.

Most often, it is as simple as that. Kids love to have adults, especially teachers, watch their events. It is one of the most important things we can do for them. This kid was not really interested in track,  but she was interested in an adult who would compliment her and encourage her. So she joined the team and did very well. The sparkle came back, the grades went back up, and I knew I could relax a bit. Unfortunately, I never attended one track meet during the regular season.

She was nice about it because she is a nice kid. But she did ask me before every  home meet if I was going to go, and I always gave her some kind of lame excuse. I was busy. I was very busy and very tired. Still, a lame excuse is exactly that. Worse, it violates one of the fundamental principles I like to believe I apply in my relationships with kids. I do not tell them lies. I do not tell them little lies or big lies. I may not tell them everything they want to know, but if I tell them something, I want it to be true. I had made an agreement with this student and I had not kept up my end. That bothered me, but not enough to get me to the track meets. Then the latest in a long series of tragedies arrived. The massacre in Springfield, Oregon, shook me badly.  When I asked the “What can we do?” question, I knew the answer as soon as I asked it. We can do what we say we are going to do. We can be with the kids. We can make sure they are OK.

As I write this, I am sitting in a motel room outside of Spokane, Washington. I drove for seven hours to get here. It was a long drive, but I had a good reason. My student was good enough to make it to the state track meet.  It was being held in Cheney, Washington, which is on the other side of the state from where we live. I remember the girl telling me that she made it to the state meet, and she ended the news with a sad look while she told me the meet was being held in Cheney.

She did not say it,  but I knew what she was thinking. It was her last meet. I had not been to any of the others, and she knew there was no way I was going to drive seven hours to watch her run in one relay race. I did not say anything to her then, but I knew what I needed to do. I did not know what to do for the millions of other kids, but on this one day, for this particular kid, I could do what I said I would do. I could be there and watch her run.

 I took the days off of school, and drove seven hours to the track meet. It was cold, and windy and rainy. I was really tired. But when the kids from my school walked into the stadium to compete, I was there. I said hello to the girl and she gave me a hug. Neither one of us said anything much. There was not much to say. I was there. She knew it, and I knew it. And we both knew what it meant. She ran her relay, did her leg well, and we lost badly. The race, that is. The kid is fine. We did not lose the kid.  

I do not know if this particular student is going to make it through school and have a good life. This kid is just one of 125 students I see every day, year in and year out. She is only one of dozens that I try to help or manipulate or guide away from trouble each year. My stories are not always happy ones. I do lose kids. I lost several this year, while finding success with the one I told you about. Still, it is my answer to the question. It is what I can do.

I can be with them. I can be in the room, at the games, on the sidewalk, or driving them around on the endless number of “rides” they seem always to need. I can pay attention. I can listen to what they say and treat what they say seriously. I can tell them the truth and do what I say I am going to do.  These things are what I am doing in the face of this madness. I cannot control  a complex and dangerous world. I can control myself.  I have no answer to the madness and the killing.  I just spend time with them.

Steve Simpson is the editor of Ed.Net Briefs (, a weekly online education newsletter with more than 60,000 readers. He earned his Ph.D. in communications at the University of Washington. He can be reached by e-mail at .


Copyright 2001 All rights reserved.