In this episode, Abbey Clements, a survivor of the Sandy Hook shooting, shares what her organization Teachers Unified to End Gun Violence is doing to advocate for gun safety and how you can join in the fight for change.
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Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence
We had planned on having this discussion already, and I had this on the books. I think we’ve rescheduled a couple of times now, but I am so sad but not surprised that there was another tragedy that just happened yesterday, which brought this front and center again. I want to just start off with just who you are and your experience in education and why you started your organization.
Again, thank you so much for having me on your podcast. And hello out there to all educators or former educators or potential educators. This is a tough time to be in teaching, so we do our best for our kids and for ourselves. I was a second grade teacher at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14th, 2012, when the shooting happened at my school.
This shooting shocked the world, changed education for everyone, whether it was a parent sending their child off to school, or an educator walking into a classroom every day, now fearing this might happen to them. Even though we knew gun violence happened, I think the tragedy at Sandy Hook School really shook educators and families to their core. All in all, this is my 31st year of teaching, and for the last 10 years, my sort of how do you move forward in this has been advocacy, has been working to try to stop these tragedies from happening. And sometimes I think, why did I choose this? Because it’s really hard, and we have more guns than people, so how are we really going to make these changes? The gun lobby is strong and literally writes our gun laws, and we see tragedies that happen that don’t change the hearts and minds of legislators, and it’s just infuriating and it’s disheartening. It feels futile.
But I think for me, so much was taken away on that day, like, who I was and that safety that I felt, whether that was really true to where we are in this country or not. Newtown is a beautiful town. Quintessential New England town, raising my kids there. I was just a teacher. I’ve always been a teacher, so I could have my summers off with them. And then sometimes they say when that control is taken away, and now people are making decisions for you, as we know in a district, they’re not always what the teachers would do. We have little power even in that system, so we look at nationally on this issue, same kind of thing, and then in our microcosm of the school or in the school district, so now people are making these decisions, and you’re coming back and you’re forever changed.
I think for me, the advocacy was trying to take control of this and say, “Well, I’m going to do whatever I can and try to be creative and help organize people to know who to vote for, and do whatever I can, small steps to help make a change.” And I did that for 10 years. I worked with Moms Demand Action, which I loved, loved everything I did with Moms and the Everytown Survivor Network.
Let’s talk a little bit about your work with them. What is it that they do?
Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America is no doubt the largest gun violence prevention organization in the country. It is a powerful system of mothers and others who through a chapter in every single state, towns… You can find one close to you, who are doing whatever they can, whether it’s organizing phone banks, tabling at farmer’s markets, showing up at town halls. I think at this point, they have eight million supporters. But the really great thing about Moms Demand Action is, as a volunteer leader, you learn these skills, these organizing skills that are just so important in any social movement, in the gun violence prevention movement. You have an opportunity to do lots of different things, so being a volunteer leader there is really cool, and you can try out different things and see what you like.
And so is that where you really started to build the foundation to understand how to build your own nonprofit organization?
Definitely. I never had an intention to start my own. I loved being a Moms Demand Action volunteer leader, and I helped organize local groups in my state. I did trainings, which I loved because it combined my teaching and my passion for this movement. And then something happened, one more school shooting, this time in Oxford, Michigan, in November of 2021. I was texting with two of my friends, an activist New York City teacher, and a survivor of the Parkland tragedy.
We were angry, sad, just absolutely distraught over yet another heinous act that has now destroyed more lives directly and indirectly. We were texting and it was like, I just remember saying, it’s like a hamster wheel. You’re on it for a while and then you hop off and then you’re back on it. And now we’re talking about another shooting, and thoughts and prayers and yelling at congresspeople, and then we forget it for a while. And then I said, it is… And we also said, and we never hear from the teachers, or we very rarely hear from the teachers.
Not that the teachers don’t want to have a voice, but that the voice is, I feel like, selectively silent when it comes to the media and people talking about this issue. It’s the parents, it’s the legislators, it’s the rights, but not how the teachers feel. I agree.
I think there are complicated levels for that. Issues of confidentiality. You want to protect, you don’t want to say anything. We’re taught that from the way beginning as teachers, you don’t say a student’s name in a meeting, in an email, so I think it’s that, partly. But I think it’s a voice that is neglected on this issue. I remember in that group text just saying, we’re just going to have to start our own organization for teachers by teachers. I was waiting for that for 10 years and it was not happening. I felt included in all the gun violence prevention that I did, but we feel that there was something missing in the gun violence prevention movement about folks who were in the schools, on the front lines with… The number one priority is the safety of their children.
This is a situation that happens far too regularly, and teachers are freaked out and they don’t have a voice. And it’s one of the many reasons why so many teachers are leaving, they do not feel safe. They do not feel like they’re supported if they do actually raise some sort of concerns, valid concerns about things that are going on in their school. I am so excited to talk about what you guys are doing because it is something that I feel, like you said, is just not being talked about. And it’s because schools are trying to brush it under the rug as well. They don’t want parents to find out that unsafe things are happening at schools, or that people are incompetent, that students might not be as safe. And then there is this external factor going on of gun rights lobbyists in the United States that are making things obviously much, much worse because there are actual threats out there.
Abbey shares how Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence empowers educators to fight for gun safety
Can you tell me a little bit about how Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence actually works, and how you guys are working to address the issue of gun violence in schools?
We’ve been incorporated, we’ve been a nonprofit for a little over a year only. Our mission, which we actually got our first grant recently to work on our strategic plan. That’s what we’re in the middle of right now, which is actually really helpful, really, really helpful to narrow our mission and our goals, because as we know on this issue, it’s not one group that’s going to end gun violence. It’s going to be a tapestry of folks who are working on this issue. And so knowing where our place is in the movement, which actually we consider ourselves a bridge connecting the education space and the gun violence prevention movement. And so we’re, I think, really unique in that way.
Our mission is actually to empower educators to demand that their communities are safe from gun violence. And so having that narrowed mission, we really think it’s important to meet teachers where they’re at. And so where is that? That is like, they are busy, sometimes doing two jobs, juggling kids homework, lesson plans, grading, and they probably won’t have time to go to rallies, and maybe it’s hard for a teacher to stand there with a sign in their town.
I mean, they might see parents, and we know how difficult things are right now, politically, it shouldn’t be a political issue, but it is.
Yeah, so what demands can teachers make at a school level, at a local level? What are your suggestions for the smallest most reasonable asks, to the most firm asks?
We’re working on resources to do exactly that. We actually just did a share my lesson session for their virtual conference, and what we talked about there was caring for children, how to care for students after gun violence or the threat of gun violence. We had had a meeting with student survivors of school shootings and we took their words, and what they said, help them. Who are the teachers? What did they do to help you move through the aftermath? See, what you don’t hear about in the news often unless it’s a one-year anniversary, maybe a five year, is like, what does the aftermath look like in a school for all those people who’ve been exposed to this incident? We talked with these students and we took… What are the takeaways from those classrooms that really nurtured these terrible experiences, either these horrible drills that they have to go through, or actual instances, whether it was in the community or in the school?
We put all that together as a resource. Like, how to be empowered to care for students, because we’re often getting in touch with the counselors, but also to advocate for these students and to say to your principal, these are some of the concerns I’m seeing in my classroom, and they really need more help that we could get. That’s one resource. What can teachers do to help make their classrooms safe spaces to process these difficult things that go on? And some of the other resources that we’re working on too are, how to advocate for drills that are non-traumatic in themselves. I mean, because if we’re trying to protect kids from gun violence and yet we’re traumatizing them in these drills that are supposed to teach them how to take care of themselves even though there really no evidence that those work. How can you advocate? What are some models that work pretty well, and that are trauma free?
So we’re working on that. And then hopefully what that’ll do is, that’ll help empower teachers to advocate for other things besides maybe directly gun violence issues, so that we learn somehow that it’s okay to ask for things that we know are important for us and for our kids.
Yeah, I agree. I know that I’ve seen on the news recently, some of the different types of drills that they’re using are also very traumatizing to teachers because teachers are afraid. And that’s the biggest thing right now is, teachers who are supposed to be this voice of reason and the calming people in the classroom, they don’t feel safe. How are they supposed to make the students feel protected if they don’t feel like they have the resources that they need to feel safe in their own classrooms?
Abbey discusses how Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence is pushing policy makers to make schools safer
What is your message to the policy makers or the public about the urgency to address the issue of gun violence in schools, and what types of actions do you believe need to be taken in order to achieve meaningful progress on this issue?
I think the message is that they need to come around. They need to go to these communities where these traumas occur and meet with people over and over again to see what life is like after, what it’s like for you to continue working in a school or a district where everyone has been impacted, or in a school where there’s some horrible community gun violence. What is it like, so that they have this deep picture that they’re just clearly not seeing. We want them to know that, just like we did through the pandemic, our priority is students, but hardening schools, making them fortresses with where they’re not feeling safe, whether it’s because of metal detectors or armed guards, that is not the answer. Arming teachers is not the answer. Credibly dangerous.
What do you think that the individuals and communities can do to help support your efforts?
We’ve been asking educators who joined us to allow us to post their narratives, short quotes about how they feel about this issue. They are so powerful. We have about 75 to 80 of these graphics, and the power is within the educator. We know educators get stuff done. Educators, we are smart, we are curious, we are excellent listeners. All the things you know how to do as a teacher, this is what makes a great activist, someone who can stand up and say, this is not right, you need to listen to my colleagues across the country. And you can leave your name off of it. You can leave your state, your town, you can leave your last name off of it. But I feel like amplifying the voices of teachers is one of our main ways to get across what it’s like for educators who are on the front line of this public health crisis.
Yeah, and I feel like I heard you say something that I’ve been thinking since I met you, that teachers make great advocates, and part of it is you went through this incredible tragedy. You are the prime example of this, to me is, a teacher’s heart is the type of person that instead of figuring out how to take care of themselves and how to completely support themselves, their initial reaction in one of these types of crisis situations is how do I support other people? What can I do to change this? How do I help other people? And I feel like that is a teacher’s heart, and that is why they make such incredible advocates as well. Your gut instinct is, what can I do to change this? How can we put our brains together and make this better for other people so they don’t feel what I feel?
Instead of you taking a leave of absence and not working in the classroom anymore and taking all the last 20 years just to heal and never think about it again, you are putting yourself back in that situation again and again to make sure that you can make a change for other people. And I think that that’s one of the best characteristics of a teacher or a former teacher and why I think so many people are going to be empowered by what you have to say and want to help support your mission as well.
Abbey explains what you can do to fight to end gun violence
When it comes to the types of advocacy that you’re doing, are you encouraging teachers not just to share their story but also to write their legislators?
Yeah, absolutely. We want to have a myriad of ways for people to get involved. Which I think those are the successful groups that have something for everyone. If you’re shy and you want to write postcards, if you’re very gregarious and you want to get on the phone with people, then you could do that. That’s what we’re hoping as we grow and we gain resources, those are some of the things that we hope to do. And we also hope to have a consortium of teachers from different states when bills come up, dangerous or wonderful, that we can bring those folks out to testify in support or against bills, because who but a teacher knows what the implications of these laws can be, and the good things and the bad things, the bad laws that happen, we have to fight, and the good laws we have to push like crazy. We’re really hoping to boots on the ground… And we’re building that. We have educators and school staff from every single state who have joined us, and so that’s really exciting.
There are times we’ll get a phone call and say, do you have anybody from California who might be able to speak to this? And then we can see if people are up for that and what they would be willing to do. That’s one way to amplify the educator voice.
There are so many people that are in this community right now, that are looking for nonprofit organizations or they’re looking for volunteer opportunities, whether this is self-serving so that they can potentially put it on a resume that they did some project management or they did some web design or content creation or worked as an instructional designer to put together materials and learning resources. This might be an opportunity if you are looking for some sort of people who are going to help you with this mission, that understand this mission, that are very passionate about it, but also potentially want to work in a different type of capacity outside of the classroom as well.
Do you have opportunities like that, that you can think of, where other people’s skills beyond just being a teacher might be helpful for your nonprofit?
Absolutely. I mean, from every little corner, all of these steps are so new to us. From budgeting to creating slideshows and graphics, to maintaining our website. It’s like begging friends who’ve been alongside me in this aftermath for 10 years. I’m like, could you please help me on this? Could you please help me on this? We’re starting to build a core ambassador program for people who are really passionate about gun violence prevention, who might want to perhaps have really great ideas on how to talk about this issue, or already doing this in their communities, and they want to have teachers unify in a purview. We have three ambassadors who our whole peer is that they can attend education conferences and talk about this issue.
I think 10 years ago we wouldn’t have been invited to some education conferences, and we have, including the one we just did three coming up within the next few months. I think the time is now, and if anybody wants to get involved, please email us at email@example.com
Yeah, it’s great to be doing something that you’re really passionate about. I’ve done some volunteer work outside of the classroom myself, and if you’re looking for non-profit work, community work, professional development trainer experience, these are all really great ways to do to couple that with something that you really want to fight for and something that you want to spend time helping other people with. I’m just grateful that you are open to people coming, and especially teachers or former teachers coming to help support you. Other than volunteer efforts helping by sharing their stories, is there somewhere that they can actually donate to help you fund your mission?
Yes, that would be so amazing. We’re grateful for every donation, big or small. On our website, which is teachersunify.org. There’s a place for you to donate through Pledge, which is an incredible organization [and] a fundraising platform for nonprofits. We’re grateful that they took us on. That would be wonderful. Other people have started Facebook fundraisers for birthdays, and that has been incredibly successful. This surprised me a lot, I think it’s like, your friends see what you’re passionate about and then they want to give. And we’ve been really grateful to a few friends who have done that. We really appreciate any donation. We’re heading to Louisville and Washington DC this summer, and we were able to get our union to sponsor us, which was a big relief because the National Teacher’s Conference in Louisville is not funded at all, and so we have four of us who are going to present, but the donations that are coming in now are really going to be helpful for some meals and to make sure that the ambassadors are fully covered, not just the hotel and the registration fee.
We want to make sure that they’re not using any of their own money. Thank you so much for being able to talk about that part, because that’s the not fun part, is how much money these things cost. Like, we want to kickstart a back to school, even if it’s an online event where people can log into some sessions… And to even get a platform, it just costs a lot. All those operational pieces are quite costly, and so we’re really working on expanding our fundraising and peer to peer, colleague to colleague connections to help with that.
Well, I’m hoping that the exposure, the podcast, the community, can help you get some of these projects going, because I know that there’s so many people who are equally passionate about this. Abbey, I cannot thank you enough for coming on. I know that this is a really heavy topic, and is just incredibly inspiring to meet you, to be able to talk to you and to just learn about what you’ve been doing from a terrible tragedy to help try and prevent tragedies in the future. Thank you so much for taking the time to be here today.
Oh, I cannot thank you enough for having me.
Mentioned in the episode:
- You can find Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence at teachersunify.org, and you can email to get involved at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Another way to get involved is to fill out Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence’s current and former educators survey here
- Our career path quiz at www.teachercareercoach.com/quiz
- Explore the course that has helped thousands of teachers successfully transition out of the classroom and into new careers: The Teacher Career Coach Course