Courage is a word I associate with many of the educators I’ve met or worked with over the years. It comes in many forms — whether it’s the quiet courage of a teacher enduring a personal struggle or health crisis, who still comes to school each day and continues to give all for her students, or the bravery of an educator who stands up to a bullying administrator or takes a stand with the union for better teaching and learning conditions.
Courage of a more urgent sort was on display in November when the unthinkable happened at Rancho Tehama Elementary School in Tehama County. In the morning, as students were being dropped off before school, staff members heard distant gunshots and immediately put the campus in lockdown. Brave teachers and education support professionals quickly ushered kids and parents into classrooms and locked the doors behind them.
While the lockdown was happening, a rifle-wielding gunman, who had earlier killed his wife and three neighbors and was shooting from a stolen pickup truck as he drove, crashed his vehicle through a school fence and gate, got out, and began firing shots indiscriminately at doors, windows and buildings, spraying classrooms with bullets, and trying to jimmy his way through locked doors. Frustrated by the successful lockdown, the gunman continued his rampage off campus until he was killed by police. When it was all over, five people were dead, including the gunman, who had a history of mental illness. Three students were among the injured.
There were many stories of bravery that morning. While rushing students to a classroom, the school’s head custodian peered around a corner and drew the attention of the shooter, becoming a target himself as the kids rushed to safety. Fortunately, the gun jammed. The school secretary, after ushering kids to safety, monitored classrooms and maintained communication with district officials as the crisis unfolded.
Fortunately, school shootings are extremely rare. Kids are still safer in schools than just about anywhere. But the fact that it happens at all is every educator’s worst nightmare. Since Columbine, lockdown drills have become more common in schools across the country. Ironically, such drills are less common at schools in rural areas like Rancho Tehama. Despite that, the selfless and quick action of the school’s staff saved many lives that day.
Drills are necessary, yet no one knows for sure how they’ll act during the real thing until it actually happens. The staff at Rancho Tehama showed the nation the stuff educators are made of. They showed that students are our first priority, even when our own lives are under threat. This was bravery of an extraordinary kind, a drive to put students first that is in the hearts of thousands of CTA members. There is never a day that I am not proud to be an educator, and I was never prouder than I was after learning of the life-saving response of that school staff. Educators have always been, and continue to be, my heroes.
I’m not only proud, I’m grateful. I’m finishing this column the day before Thanksgiving, and I’m reflecting on the countless large and small examples of self-sacrifice and bravery educators exhibit on behalf of their students.
Thankfully, most of us will never face a situation like Rancho Tehama, but the daily courage and caring of teachers and education support professionals is something everyone should be thankful for. I know I am, and I want to thank each of you for all you continue to do for California students.
Eric C. Heins