Newtown Makes Teacher Wonder How To Handle Loners

Patch's education columnist says every year he has students who are deeply withdrawn. Is it simple shyness or a social tragedy in the making? How should he respond?


This column is written by High School English teacher Jerry Heverly.

It would seem almost like sacrilege for me to write a column on education this week without addressing the bloodletting that took place in Newtown, Connecticut last week.

Yet I know very little about guns or the larger issues of school safety.

I know nothing about the mentality of people who shoot up schools.

Mostly I’m left with questions in the aftermath of last week’s tragedy.

In my first two columns, last spring, I chose to advocate for a more open and welcoming school posture towards parents and community members.

It seemed to me then, and now, that schools need pollinating from parents and interested citizens. There’s too much incestuous inbreeding in a school. We need people to come in and ask the impolitic questions.

At a meeting recently I overheard a parent ask about “punitive” math grading practices. He had visited some math classrooms and wondered, was it possible that we were so strict in our math grading that we derailing many kids? It’s an interesting query, one that no teacher would ever be able to ask.

You can’t get questions like that unless someone from the outside takes a look inside our school.

Yet how can I justify my call for openness at a time like this?

I’m old enough now to have beheld several of these school shootings. While I know little of psychology I can’t help but notice that most of the perpetrators are described as loners, unsocial, solitary. Former classmates seem always to remark on their unwillingness to speak in (high school) class. After the Connecticut story came out I immediately thought of the similarities to the young man who murdered so many at Virginia Tech in 2007.

Every year I have reclusive students in my classroom.

This year I have a girl who never speaks, an A student. She has indicated to me in many ways that I must not call on her or expose her to the attention of classmates.

Should I continue to honor her tacit expectations? When do I consult the school psychologist? There are major risks in making such a referral.

My gut tells me that she is just shy. I doubt there is anything that could be labeled a pathology. Did Adam Lanza’s teachers dismiss the walls he put up as simple shyness?

Every year I have at least one such child.

Then there is the matter of how to respond to these events with early adolescents who value their cynicism and alienation above all other qualities.

A moment of silence in honor of the dead children is an excuse for giggles and coarse under-the-breath remarks. As in so many other things the bullies in the classroom rule the roost; they will not tolerate any decorous sentiments or sympathetic expressions.

The kids who might want to demonstrate some empathy for the victims dare not say anything.

I would love to find some way to connect with their kinder natures, which I assume they all have, but I don’t have the words, or the ways, to do it.

I know I am in a pivotal spot, teaching kids who have just reached puberty. My sense is that, if I had the wisdom to know what to do, I could affect some real good here and perhaps help to forestall the next bit of violence.

But events like Sandy Hook only leave me with more questions than answers. 

Read other columns from the Entirely Secondary archive. The tag line is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do an experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary.

Tyler December 20, 2012 at 05:48 PM
I think you're asking all the right questions. Perhaps Mayor Cassidy (who's now calling on legislators to 'fix it' for us...) would care to answer these questions. Don't get me wrong, I think Steven is a fine Mayor. But to think we can legislate our way out of this societal issue is like the old George Carlin sketch: "*pop-pop* two in the mouth". Something hurt? Pop a couple of aspirin. Gun violence? Simply legislate. You, the teachers and parents, are on the front lines of this issue. We, the public, should be calling for more answers to these questions to enable you to shape the future of our children, and our society. Trying to simply ban anything people can use to hurt each other is myopic, and I think, dangerous.
Leah Hall December 20, 2012 at 08:26 PM
I think it is very helpful to frame the types of questions this gifted writer and teacher has done here. May our community and national leaders pull together to share this burden, it should not and cannot be born by teachers and parents alone. On one point, I recall learning about a very effective early-intervention program for schitzophrenia and other related medical conditions. One elemenet of the program involved outreach to teachers and other youth development professionals who were likely to encounter the "signs" and symptoms first and be able to identify and seek medical help with adequate training. This program's budget has been severely cut, if not eliminated, in recent years in response to our state budget crises.
Leah Hall December 20, 2012 at 08:34 PM
I found the organization. It's called Prevention and Recovery in Early Psychosis (PREP) Also very important thing for folks to understand: alchohol and drug intoxication are correlated with gun violence far more often than mental illness by itself. People with severe mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than they are to commit one. http://www.prepwellness.org/early_intervention.html


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