After more than 35 years as a teacher, teacher educator and now the dean of Wooding College of Education at Western Washington University, I listened with sorrow and dismay to the details as they emerged from the terrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
I sent a difficult-to-compose notice to our faculty and staff asking that they take a moment to reflect, in the way they best believe, on the horrific events and the pain being felt by bereaved families and a devastated community. I welcomed the moment of silence offered by Western President Bruce Shepard on Saturday during commencement to honor those whose lives had been taken needlessly and unexpectedly. I was deeply moved as I listened to President Obama's compassionate message to an interfaith gathering on Sunday in Newtown, looking for hope in the nearly hopeless.
Something deeply profound happens in the consciousness of the nation whenever these catastrophic events occur. But this was different in that it included the lives of 20 six- and seven-year-old children, each shot multiple times. Nothing will take away from the heart-breaking loss of young people who died before much of their lives had begun.
In returning to work in the college on Monday, I was thinking about the murder of these children and adults, and its implications for our work as students, staff and faculty in a college of education. Perhaps more than any other academic unit on a university campus, we feel compelled to respond because our work is centered on children and adolescents in families, schools and communities.
With the pain of loss of children in the forefront of our minds, I also thought about the six education professionals whose lives were also lost: two teachers (Lauren Rousseau and Victoria Soto), two teachers' aides (Rachel D'Avino and Anne Marie Murphy), a school counselor (Mary Sherlach) and the school principal (Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung). These are the roles we prepare individuals to assume, the work we undertake most closely and directly.
The people who choose to come into a profession where service to children and adolescents is a guiding light inspire us day in and day out. We know that they learn how to write lesson plans, organize classrooms, create assessments and modify instruction accordingly. But we also work diligently to ensure that they foster positive relationships with children and their caregivers. We ask them to regard classrooms, and the teaching/learning that occurs there, as sacred places. We teach them about the importance of being good stewards of the school, the local community and the profession. We foster an understanding that we are not just teachers, administrators, human service professionals and counselors - but our work is central to the very vitality of our nation's democracy as we pursue the broad public purposes of education: an informed and engaged citizenry.
Teachers are often thought of as "unforgotten heroes." As we grieve and mourn the tragic deaths of 20 children whose lives gave meaning to a community, let us not forget the courage and commitment of these six who were acting heroically to carry out their work as education professionals. Let us not forget the teachers who calmed their students and ushered them out of the school and into safety. We do so by ensuring that teachers who grace classrooms in our own local communities, states and a grieving nation are recognized for who they are: the forgotten heroes.
Francisco Rios is dean of Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University.