Steve Heisler

Teacher Author Speaker


"Every single child wants to be successful. The problem is, if they can't be successful at being successful, they'll be successful at screwing up. Our job as educators is to change the latter to the former."    

- from the The Missing Link by Steve Heisler

Facing Difficult Realities

Lately I have been thinking about an incident that occurred during a high school dance.

As per policy the school was required to have a Police Oficer present to prevent any problems. However, when a male student got into a meaningless little argument with female student near the Officer, it was the Officer who escalated the issue by confronting the male student.

Any teacher worth his salt would know immediately to first engage with the student rather than confront him but instead the officer immediately asserted his authority. The student reacted, poorly it needs to be clearly stated, but the officer became immediately enraged, and in the space of about a (literally) a few seconds the officer was ready to cuff and arrest the kid. Fortunately there was a teacher nearby who was able to defuse the situation. It was actually harder to calm the officer down than the kid. In the end, the student had to be asked to leave if only to assuage the officer.

I write this not to fault the Police Officer; he was no less right or wrong in his behavior than was the student, but I have been thinking about this lately because of the shooting of Tamir Rice.

Like many, I have no idea what to think about the shooting death of this 12 year old child other than it is tragic is beyond words. That is is tinged in our climate of racial strife is also a factor.

Whether it was racially motivated or not is a question yet to be answered, and may never be answered. However if we can set aside the race issue momentarily we might be able to look at this confrontation from a very different perspective.

While this is complete conjecture based on public news reports the key issue here at the outset seems to be one of time. What we have is a 12 year old boy who appears to have a weapon in a confrontation with an armed adult, with the child supposedly being ordered to put up his hands. Instead Tamir reaches for the toy gun in his belt.  According to the New York Times, the period of time that elapsed from the moment the patrol car rolled up until the officer fired his weapon was about two seconds.

Two seconds. Less time that it takes me to write the actual words two seconds.


With deference to the Police Officer, two seconds facing a life and death decision is oppressive and frightening. Given my brain I am certainly not a person who would function well under such circumstances. More to the point, neither would many of my students.

What I have learned as a teacher however is that what may be simple and direct and easily understood information to one student may well be gobbydegook to another. What students understand and what they do not, both on the learning and on the compliance side, is critical information in the classroom and while I do not make an equation between the intensity of decision making under the stress of an armed confrontation and the interaction of a teacher, still being able to answer the question of what the person to whom you are speaking knows is critical understanding. 

Great teachers learn how to give simple, clear directive, avoid excess verbiage, and check for understanding and sometimes must do so under stressful circumstances, most of the time not facing down the barrel of a gun.

At the high school dance I witnessed two people confronting each other at about the the same level of mis-understanding. However one was an armed adult and the other a foolish kid acting like foolish kids act in school. It seems to me it was incumbent on the adult to act as an adult, take a measured and calm response, but he did not in all probability because it was simply not in his training and vocabulary to respond that way.

And it makes me wonder, how much of understanding of a kid (or even an adult) goes into the way officers interact with others. To be sure teachers have much to learn from parents and police officers but it does seem, at least in reflecting upon such interaction, officers have something to learn from us. It doesn't seem to me such a stretch that a few seconds of engagement might well save a life time of regret.