Murdered Sandy Hook teachers were heroes

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on December 20, 2012)

The Newtown, Conn., shootings deprived 20 precious children of the lives they had ahead of them. They also ended the lives of four teachers, a school psychologist and Sandy Hook Elementary’s principal.

Rachel Davino, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, Victoria Soto, Mary Sherlach and Dawn Hochsprung lost their lives on Friday even as they tried to protect and preserve the lives of their students. They deserve our remembrance.

Hochsprung, Sandy Hook’s principal, was recalled by parents as accessible, creative, energetic and technologically savvy. She was deeply concerned about education policy, the professional development of her teachers and helping her students become critical thinkers.

Mary Sherlach, the school psychologist, had many years’ experience in helping Sandy Hook’s students overcome the stresses of childhood and the challenges of learning. She was said to be looking forward to retirement.

According to Newtown’s school superintendent, Hochsprung and Sherlach died as they tried to subdue the man who was indiscriminately gunning down their first-grade charges.

Americans are right to feel horrified. There are no easy words of comfort for events like these. But perhaps there is consolation in knowing that quick-thinking teachers and other school staff acted rapidly to protect innocents and save lives. Following plans they knew well, they locked doors, hid children in closets and cabinets, and kept them occupied drawing, coloring and singing even as they knew that other children and colleagues were probably dying nearby. They refused to unlock doors until they were certain it was safe to do so. And there were those, named above, who gave their lives.

Training important

Those of us who train future teachers emphasize the importance of student and school safety. We make sure that our candidates know the emergency protocols in the schools where they work. We try to help candidates develop their abilities to act wisely and responsibly in moments of crisis or conflict. The teachers in Newtown did everything that could be expected of them and more — they acted with courage. With teachers and schools so often disparaged, the actions and sacrifices of the adults at Sandy Hook Elementary should prompt us to reflect on and appreciate the many positive qualities that educators bring to our children’s lives.

In the weeks and months to come, it will be natural for parents to feel reluctance when dropping their children off for school in the morning and relief when picking them up at the end of the day. A few more hugs each day will not hurt parents or children. Parents uncertain about how to talk with their children about the shooting should certainly seek advice from school counselors. The American Psychological Association offers useful information on how to help children manage their distress at www.apa.org/helpcenter/aftermath.aspx.

Despite the grief we feel, I hope that parents will find reassurance in knowing that teachers, principals, school psychologists and other personnel are all deeply committed to the safety and well-being of the children we entrust to them, sometimes heroically so.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.

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