‘Instead of a gun in every classroom, let’s put a teacher in every gunshop.’

I came across this gem on Facebook while I was still spluttering over the crass statement by Wayne LaPierre, the Vice-President of the NRA, that ‘The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.’ The NRA advocates putting armed guards in every school as the way to prevent further mass shootings such as the pre-Christmas massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School at Newtown, Connecticut. (It probably also recommends keeping buckets of gasoline in the house in case of fire.)

I was delighted by the image of every potential gunshop customer being challenged at the point of sale to reflect upon, explain and justify their reasoning in deciding that they needed a gun. The teacher would, of course, only accept properly thought-through answers, would pick up on any logical inconsistencies, and would use astute questioning to guide the ‘learner’ to a proper understanding of the implications of his or her actions. Imagine the effect on sales! (Perhaps others shared this same image, which is why the share price of both Smith & Wesson and Remington plummeted.)

This set me to pondering on just how much expertise teachers bring to their profession. Inexplicably, the public view of teaching seems to be more in line with George Bernard Shaw’s jibe: ‘He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches’ or Woody Allen’s modification ‘Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym.’

I would argue the opposite.

Teaching a concept or skill actually requires a far more profound understanding than simply using it, which is why ‘peer-teaching’ is such an effective classroom strategy. Nor does the ability to teach arise automatically from mastery of the subject – witness how the most capable students can flounder when asked to ‘peer-teach’ an item. Naturally gifted mathematicians or linguists do not necessarily make the best teachers of Maths or Languages – quite the opposite. It is often the struggle for mastery, including the analysis of the skills needed, reflection on the difficulties, and the development of strategies for overcoming them, that builds the framework of understanding of the learning process and empathy for the learner that makes for effective teaching. This can be observed very well in sports. The number of top coaches who a) did not reach the highest levels as players in their sport and b) were teachers before they became coaches is far too high to be a coincidence. In international rugby alone the list includes Graham Henry (NZ All Blacks), Declan Kidney (Ireland), Stuart Lancaster (England), Brian Ashton (England), Eddie O’Sullivan (Australia) and Bill Dickinson (Scotland). From soccer can be added Jose Mourinho (Real Madrid), Roy Hodgson (England) and Rafael Benitez (Chelsea). Dig into your own favourite sport and you will find many more. In Shaw’s words, they could not do, so they taught, and I would suggest that it was the skills they learned while qualifying and practising as teachers, combined with the insights gained by having to think about their chosen sport (rather than rely on natural genius or instinct) that enabled them to become such effective communicators and transmitters of skills.

Outstanding teachers are as rare as outstanding ‘doers’. They are also far more valuable, given the number of lives that they help shape. As Shaw and Allen might have said if they had gone for accuracy rather than wit:

Those who can teach make it possible for others to learn how to do (and that applies to gym teachers as well!)

“The world is full of suffering, it is also full of overcoming it.” Helen Keller

Before this week I, like most people in the world, had never heard of Newtown, Connecticut  The lives of the teachers, students and parents of Sandy Hook Elementary School had no special significance beyond their immediate family circles.  I wish that were still the case.

I imagine that the atmosphere at Sandy Hook during the final lead up to the Christmas holidays was the same mix of excitement, enthusiasm and anticipation as in schools all over the world.  Anyone who has worked in schools would have felt at home.

No more.  Henceforth, the name ‘Sandy Hook’ will be a short-hand prompt for despair and outrage.  Each of us will feel the guilty conflict between our horror at the realisation that it could so easily have happened in our own community, and an awful feeling of guilty thankfulness that it did not.

When faced with a natural disaster such as famine, flooding or earthquake, we know how to respond:  we try to mobilise resources and send help;  we contribute to the Red Cross; we hold collections for blankets, food, clothing, or simply money.  But this week there is no help we can send; there is no outside support we can offer.  There is simply a school community that has been devastated because of a personal narrative that turned violent, and in which they have played no part except that of victims.

However, though we cannot offer help, we are not helpless.

We have been told that right now is not the time to debate the issue of gun control, and it is a safe assumption that the gun lobby will soon move into high gear to argue that the easy availability of firearms had no direct bearing on this tragedy.  We will also hear the usual defence of personal liberties and constitutional protection of the right to bear arms.  In addition, non-Americans like me will be told that this is a domestic debate in which we have no legitimate voice.

My response is that I claim a voice because I have worked in schools; I claim a voice because I know and have taught American children;  I claim a voice because I have enough working brain cells to recognise that the correlation between easy gun ownership and sky-high levels of gun crime is not a coincidence, and that a constitution written two hundred years ago for a society in which the survival of the nation was under threat may not provide a perfect blueprint for today;  I claim a voice because I view what happened at Sandy Hook in the same way I view apartheid, or the suppression of free speech, or the oppression of women, or the exploitation of children, i.e. as a violation of the standards to which the human race should aspire.

President Obama has promised ‘meaningful action’.  I hope that my voice will be added to the voices of millions around the world, rising to a deafening volume that cannot be ignored, and that will strengthen his resolve to prevail against those who will want to resist any action.  The US claims the right to exert influence beyond its borders in support of human rights, and when it considers a government is failing to protect its people.  It is time for them to hear that the rest of the humanity claims the reciprocal right.