Recently I had the pleasure of visiting the University of Connecticut to work alongside the Social Studies trainee teachers, who are part of the NEAG School of Education. (Social Studies in America is an effective cross-curricular subject, combining Geography, History, Economics and Civics which draws in some English literature and bravely tackles pertinent topics such as human rights). Despite Connecticut being one of the smaller states in the U.S, the six schools I visited provided a broad glimpse at the regional differences within the State schooling system, but it also introduced me to the national disparity that is currently plaguing American schools all across the country.
The topic that is causing the disparity is also one that is very difficult to overcome. And we are all more than familiar with it: gun control.
Now when I told my British students that I was planning on visiting America to experience the American education system, their immediate comments were associated with guns and shoot outs in American schools. One student genuinely asked me if I would be wearing a bullet proof vest whilst I taught there. (Ironically, an American student asked if I, as a British teacher, was allowed to carry a gun to school!) Scarily, these comments were not the simple naivety of an average Key Stage 3 class; friends and family uttered the same remarks about my safety in America because of the risk that guns repeatedly posed to school children and teachers alike. Our media do a great job at indoctrinating us with this suspicion of American schools because our media organisations rarely report anything about American education unless a school shooting has occurred. Any sense of education in the U.S often becomes overshadowed by the increasingly global discussion about gun control, accessibility to guns and the damaging consequences when gun ownership is coupled with significant mental health issues.
One of the school placements I had whilst in Connecticut was close to Hartford where I sat in a class that translated roughly to Year 13 in British educational terms (Hartford is the State capital of Connecticut.) The school had a mixed demographic of African Americans, Latin Americans, Asians and White Americans, whilst also being economically diverse with students from working and middle class backgrounds. The specific class I am referring to represented the school community in it’s entirety.
“Can you buy ammunition in the supermarket in Britain?” Anonymous student.
The Social Studies teacher invited us to participate in a Q&A session with students which began with questions like “Can you say something in English?” or “What is your favourite soccer team?”. It got slightly more serious with “How much tea do you guys really drink?” before moving onto “Can you buy ammunition from the supermarket?”. Now this question opened a can of cultural worms which highlighted the different perceptions, and confusions both our countries held about how our respective societies work. I had already noted the armed police officer assigned to the school as the first obvious cultural difference, and now I was thrown into a conversation about how I buy vegetables in the supermarket, not ammunition.
I soon came to learn, however, that our cultural backgrounds did not prevent us aligning on the issue of gun control.
This specific class had been actively part of some of the other gun-associated news we received in Britain about American schools: the 17 minute Walkouts in honour of the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting in Florida. These Walkouts were also a means of protest which gathered nation wide momentum challenging government inaction concerning gun regulation and gun ownership. The class coordinated with the school administrators and leadership prior to the walkout and since this successful event, they have been writing to local government sharing their grievances about gun legislation. Speaking to the class, they shared their anxieties about attending school which led to a discussion about how the fear of a shooting undermines any chance at creating safe and positive learning environments. If you asked them if they felt secure that a shooting would never occur in their school district due to the stricter gun legislation in Connecticut, the answer is no. They experienced the Sandyhook shooting in 2012 which left 20 people dead, and as far as this class were concerned, they weren’t any safer than other American high school. It was hard not to sympathise with their justification.
We continued to talk openly about the relationship between mental health and gun ownership, and the lax regulations that do not flag up prior health records when someone wishes to purchase a gun. They were amazed by the stringent process of buying a gun in Britain, and even more amazed you couldn’t buy one in a supermarket. The class, alongside their broader campaigning to local officials, have also become active within the school community, promoting mental health awareness for students struggling with a range of mental health issues. I was impressed with how attentive the class were to the link between students struggling with mental health who have then gone on to commit atrocities using guns. They were well researched and knowledgeable about these shootings, and were determined through their arguments for a change to be made. I thought how mature this conversation about mass shootings in America had become, and I certainly believe it was a conversation members of America’s pro-gun lobbying elite should have listened in on.
I came away from this conversation with a sense of pride for these students and I wholeheartedly admired their ambitions. Here was a class with a mixture of personalities, abilities and experiences who were all united and campaigning with the same viewpoint on gun ownership. As a point of contrast, I commented to them that when I was their age completing my A Levels, I was solely focused on getting into university and whilst there were issues occurring in Britain that affected my generation like the rise in tuition fees, I was not empowered enough for it to distract me from my pursuit of higher education. These students, however, were empowered and campaigning about an issue that I could empathise with, whilst also juggling the same academic pressures that come with revision, exams and acquiring university places. As a teacher, it made me selfishly thankful that my own students do not have this burden of worry about surviving a school day, bullet free, on top of what is already a hugely pressurised education system in Britain.
Upon reflection, it is clear this class has taught me a lot about gun control. I came away much more aware of the perceptions American students have about the frequent school shootings and also what efforts are being made to challenge the legislation in America. Unfortunately, I do not expect these students will win the battle over gun control quickly, or easily. What is obvious, however, is that the fight about gun control has now become their generation’s fight, and these students are most certainly compelling in their efforts to change the status quo.
I wish them the best of luck.