Maybe police should have to do some time teaching

three yellow pencils on a whitish gray background

Neliza DrewApr 14·4 min read (originally published on Medium)

“Pencil” by taylor.a is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I never murdered any students while I was teaching.

This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. Most teachers haven’t. Even the worst teachers generally haven’t murdered any students and even criminal teachers are mostly exempt from profession-based homicide.

I mention this because someone recently posted one of those nonsensical “back the blue” propaganda videos recently and the bulk of it seemed to break down into two different, interwoven, messages: Cops are nice people who help during disasters (odd <sarcasm font>) how all those featured white people) and cops get yelled at by people so we have to understand their job is hard.

Which brings me back to teaching because I’m quite sure if someone had been following me around with a camera, they could have pulled out some shots of me sitting with a student helping them figure out some math problem or grammar question. I’m sure this imaginary documentary could have included students yelling, getting into my face, or acting displeased with the situation.

For many years, I worked in a juvenile detention center. I had students start fights in class. Some were mostly an exchange of words and posturing. Some involved throwing books and furniture. I had students try to hurt themselves or others. I had a student run across the tops of a row of desks and leap on top of a file cabinet where they proceeded to attack another teacher’s fake plant. I had more than one student who was so big and strong, it took several staff members to hold them back.

Secret? The staff never managed to kill any of the kids there either. Why? For one thing, most of them were from the same communities the students were from and understood what a lot of them were going through. They were also trained in non-lethal forms of restraint and encourage to use de-escalation and kindness rather than force. No one should be surprised that was far more effective than screaming “ride the lightning” at stressed-out kids.

The teachers were never trained in any of that stuff, but somehow we managed to not murder anyone by accidentally pulling out a weapon instead of a dry-erase marker. Even at the alternative school where teachers didn’t go through a metal detector and neither did students.

Come to think of it, I didn’t get much training at all. Not any that was useful anyway. I got several days of training on textbook software the kids could use on iPads none of them had, but no training on the gradebook system. I got hours of training on a color-coded reading system mostly so the reading coach could get upset the kids didn’t put the books back in the right buckets.

Mostly, I found that wry responses to threats worked better than anything else to defuse situations

“Ima stab you with this pencil.”

“Sounds good. Let me know if you need help.”

I also had a student who was regularly used his size to intimidate people. Thing was, he was actually a good student, and was generally well-behaved and polite. He’d just had too many people assume or test him based on his size, so he’d learned to use his size in the way people expected.

Toward the end of the year, he approached my desk while everyone was supposed to be working on a test. I was entering grades since I could see the class and graduation was fast-approaching. He got very close, kind of looming.

“You need to back up, ___”

“You scared?”

“No, but there’s no privacy screen on the monitor and grades are confidential.” I turned the monitor slightly. “What’s up?”

Turned out he wanted to make sure his final grade would be high enough for him to graduate. (Totally. Like, I said, he was a good student.)

I’m not saying I’m perfect or that I’ve never done anything wrong. I, do, however try to learn from my mistakes. And I try to de-escalate situations when possible. Because most of the time, it’s possible.

I’ve also noticed that when people have access to weapons, they tend to rely on those weapons and assume the worst.

I noticed this when I taught marital arts and we’d have defense experts come to talk or train us on special topics. One in particular was a knife expert who talked tough about all the ways he kicked asses everywhere he went. He also insisted on strapping on at least six weapons to drive across the street for lunch. I would have just walked across the street to the restaurant if it had served anything remotely vegan. Instead, I had a delightful tempeh sandwich alone.

The defense experts also talked about having weapons hidden in their trucks with the doors locked while driving to prevent attacks and kidnappings. Silly me, I’ve been driving around without windows in my Jeep, malfunctioning locks, and no weapons because why in hell would I keep weapons in a vehicle that doesn’t lock? He was quick to resort to violence at the slightest provocation.

We never let the defense “experts” talk to the kids, in large part because their philosophies were often in contrast to what we taught the kids: Violence is a last resort. Use your words first. Diffuse situations or remove yourself when possible before using defense or offense.

Maybe the police could use some more kids karate.

Then again, the kids were also much better at not being racist assholes, for the most part, and faced consequences when they were.

Consequences are what we’ve always been told were an important part of learning to do the right thing. But for some reason cops don’t ever seem to face any. Not in the same way the rest of society does. Even little kids could tell you that’s wrong.