Classroom tip: Don’t surprise your principal

“Don’t surprise your principal,” I remember Mr. Faeth saying.

He was the principal who hired me for my first teaching job. I was teaching world history and civics at a continuation high school in Eureka, California. “If you are going to have your class read a controversial article or book or if you are going to watch a movie with any questionable content, I need to know about it in advance,” he continued. “That way if a parent calls me asking about the article or the movie, I can tell her that you and I have talked and these are the educational merits of the material.”

It was good advice. Mr. Faeth never second-guessed the article, book, or film I chose for my class, as long as I could explain the educational value to him. That said, I wouldn’t use any material, controversial or not, in my class unless I could explain to anyone its merits. The scenario Mr. Faeth used to drive his point home, the angry parent phone call, only happened to me two or three times.  Each time, he was able to talk the parent through the material and calm him or her down.

Flash forward to my current school in Oakland, California. Last week, something happened that made me think that one of my colleagues could have used that chat Mr. Faeth gave me fifteen years ago. If the adults on campus knew that one of our classes was using a BB-gun as a prop for a movie about neighborhood violence, then the whole mess probably wouldn’t have happened.

I was caught out of class when the lockdown began.

It was my preparation period, and I was off to a meeting when I heard my now-principal’s voice on the loudspeaker. “Teachers and staff, we are on lockdown,” he said. “Everyone close and lock your doors, and let no students out of class until further notice.” Immediately, my colleagues responded. They closed and locked doors, closed the blinds on their windows, and got their students to the safest part of each room.

This was our first lockdown of the year. Frankly, we don’t get very many lockdowns at our school. Some of our sister schools throughout Oakland go through this nearly every week. We don’t have metal detectors or armed guards. We do have security guards, though, and some of them wear body armor. Despite the infrequency of a gun on campus, gun violence touches our school community every year, and no one is blasé about the possibility of a gun on campus.

Within minutes, police officers began arriving. Together with our security team and the teachers’ aid who first saw the gun, they determined who the potentially dangerous student was, where he was, and how to go get him.

In the end, the student was apprehended without incident. The story about the BB-gun and the film project for class came to light. Our lockdown ended. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

In defense of the teacher whose class was doing the film, she had given the student explicit instructions not to bring the prop onto campus. The class was on a field-trip that day to do their filming and the BB-gun was supposed to stay in the teen’s car when they returned to school. That said, I find it hard to imagine a teenager not wanting to bring a toy gun into class to show off.  I don’t think it is unreasonable for this teacher to plan for the strong possibility that her student was going to disobey her instruction.

In the end, more transparency would have helped. Sure, the student who was bringing the BB-gun to school for the film was told to leave it in his car. If we could go back in time and do things differently, I would have like to have seen all of this student’s teachers told that he was bringing the prop to school that day. Then, when the teacher saw him and his gun, he would have known that it was the prop. Also, if my principal had known that there was the possibility that a toy gun might be on campus, he might have been able to check in with the student early in the morning to see if the prop was, indeed, property stowed safely away.

Lesson learned, whether it is a toy-gun prop for a film, or a controversial element to one lesson plan, a teacher would be wise to give her or his principal a heads-up.

Classroom Tip: Don’t surprise your principal.

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