Speaking out on gun violence

It was a shooting at a high school in Oxford Township, Mich., in 2021, that compelled three educators to co-found Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence. The founders wanted to create an organization to elevate stories of gun violence in schools and communities in order to change policies as well as offer resources and support to educators who face the possibility of gun violence daily.

Photo of speakers at AFT TEACH 2023
One way to effectively relay stories about the impact of gun violence is to listen to your students, says Sarah Lerner (pictured with the microphone).

“Gun violence has affected every single one of us in this room, whether it be directly or indirectly,” said Sari Beth Rosenberg, a co-founder of Teachers Unify and high school history teacher in New York City, during the AFT TEACH workshop titled “Speaking of Gun Violence: How Do We Ensure Educator Voices Matter?” The workshop featured panelists from Teachers Unify who shared how gun violence led them to organize and find ways to empower educators to raise their voices for change.

Abbey Clements, a veteran elementary school teacher and survivor of the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Conn., told attendees that surviving that fateful day was just the beginning. She and her fellow survivors had to deal with the aftermath. “The aftermath is trying to figure out what your path forward is in this new normal,” she said. For Clements, the path forward was advocacy. She wanted to find a way to bring educators into the discussion around gun violence because, in her mind, they were the “missing piece.” The increasing number of school shootings motivated Clements to connect with several of her educator colleagues and encourage them to start a national organization for teachers, by teachers, to try to end the violence.

“My son was in first grade when Sandy Hook happened. You never think that something like this will happen to you. ... And then it did,” said Sarah Lerner, also a co-founder of Teachers Unify, and an English teacher who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., in 2018. “When the news cycle changes, and your school isn't front and center anymore, … [then] there's just so much that schools and communities need, but no one asks us what those things are,” said Lerner.

When asked for effective, powerful and appropriate ways to relay stories about the impact of gun violence, Lerner discussed the power of listening to students.

“Be open to listening to your students. In the aftermath of what happened at my school, the kids wanted to talk. And so many of the teachers didn't want to listen, not because they were being mean, but it was too much for them to hear. But I wanted to hear what the kids had to say. And they knew that they had a safe space in my room to talk about it,” she said. “If you live in a community where there is a lot of gun violence, and the students want to talk and you are open to hearing them, listen to what they have to say, because this is the baggage and this is what they carry,” she added.

La-Shanda West, a social studies teacher in Miami and a Teachers Unify ambassador who is a survivor of gun violence, encouraged attendees to have the uncomfortable conversations. As a candidate for school board in a recent election, West used her voice and platform to tell her story and to make sure that her community understands that gun violence is unacceptable. “You have a right to live in a community where you're safe and secure. And we need to have these uncomfortable conversations and hold policymakers accountable at all levels, not just local, but state and national as well.”

Elevating educator stories is an integral part of Teachers Unify, said Clements. “If people don't know what's going on in your classrooms, what your students are dealing with, even in a broad way, then they can just normalize this, or they can just pretend it's not happening. But you are the experts, you know what's happening.”

[Adrienne Coles]