Identify door, window locations. Place a desk below a window if your room is at ground level, in case you need to get kids out quickly. Make sure you can open that window. WD-40 that window if it squeaks. If you are on a second floor or higher, have a small whiteboard and marker next to a window to be able to place a message. Also useful: a red folder and green folder as a quick visual to signal for help.
Lock your door from the outside. Time yourself. Lock your door from the inside. Time yourself. Identify any hindrances to locking your door. Eliminate them. Train yourself to keep your keys in your front pocket so you know exactly where they are and can access them immediately. Have a full bookshelf and any extra desks within ten feet of door to create a barricade if need be.
Have the thick, construction paper art your kids made you in a designated location so if you need to cover the windows you can do it efficiently and in a way that will not signal a heightened awareness of any threat.
Place the phone in a place you can unplug it outside the view of the door. Know how to take it off the hook without making a sound. Know how to place an outside call to emergency services without looking at the number pad.
Look at your roster. Count the kids. Know their full names, know their birthdays. Be ready to identify them by birthday if it isn’t safe to call out names. Know how many you can fit in your closet if you have one. Know how many you can fit in the back stairwell, if there is one. Know who can stay calm and hold the hand of the one who freezes up. Know whose going to need you to rub their back and whisper how proud you are of them, how brave they are, when everyone needs to be silent. Know this so they stay alive.
Keep your scissors on your desk. The back-up pair in your supply bag. Know how much your hole punch weighs, and where it needs to make contact if you need to disable an intruder.
Know your kids by whisper. Be ready to ask them to hold their breath. Be ready to ask them to hold each other. Tell them on day one you do not, and will not, yell—so that if you do yell it is because you are sounding an alarm and that volume is to get them safe.
Mistakenly yell one day in the hall when two boys are horse playing and have one young woman tap you on the shoulder and offer the scissors because she thought you were sounding the alarm. Fail to explain how sorry you are. Squeeze her shoulder and say thank you. When everyone transitions to their next class, cry.
Cry like a first year teacher all over again when you get the robocall from your old school, your first school, that a sixth-grader brought a gun to school. The school where you got in the car accident and the kids wrote you a note that said, “thank God for Ms. Leahy’s healing,” the school where you taught “This is Water” to seventh-graders and they played along even though it wasn’t developmentally appropriate. The school where classrooms packed full of kids deserved so much better than what you could give them at 23, or 24, or 25. The school where you had amazing mentors that loved you through your rough patch and helped you be patient and kind. Cry when you can’t catch your breath and you think about all the folks you love in that building, and wonder if their folder is red or green. Cry harder when you look around the room at your current students. Cry the hardest when you don’t know what the next phone call will say.
Stop saying “if.” Operate in the mentality of “when.” When you hear the pop, what direction will you give first? When a student is frustrated or having an off day, how do you comfort them and keep everyone else safe? When people assume from your zip code that your school “must have metal detectors,” how do you have the conversation about institutionalized racism without getting so angry your eyes roll back and you foam from their incompetence? When you drive to school with your stun gun, do you leave it in the glove box? Have that conversation over and over and over with yourself until you are dizzy with the impossibility of doing it all well. Know that your phone is going to ring again. Know who you will want to call if the “when” comes soon.
If you can do all that, write some lesson plans. Know the pulse of the kids you teach and work so that they never forget you love them. Make your classroom the place where kids ask “why” and tell you “how.” Be thankful for every minute you get with them, every secret they trust you with, every joke that is told at the wrong moment in class. Praise their ingenuity when they find a new way to beat the system, join in on the yelling about dress code, and get your hands dirty with the school lunch every now and again. This is such a sacred and fragile place. We get so little time to do it right.
Author Bio: Kathleen Leahy is a Chicagoland native, where she teaches English in the Roseland community on the far Southside. She writes in between lesson planning, dog walks, and yoga practices. Her nonfiction focuses include mental health and class mobility.