Teachers on Instagram and Pinterest post the sort of pretty, aspirational content you might find on any highly curated social media feed: Photos of picture-perfect classroom organization and decorations, all of which can sometimes earn teachers tens of thousands of followers or more. In this corner of the internet, there are tips for baking cupcakes or DIYs for the perfect fishtail braid.
But there are also instructions on how to create the best curtains for your classroom window to cover them in case an armed intruder gets into the building. Or a lock smock, a cloth rectangle with bands on each side to fit over door handles, which lets a teacher quickly lock her classroom door without standing outside in the hallway fiddling with keys. Online, teachers trade tips for how to assemble emergency backpacks filled with snacks and quiet sensory toys to “comfort” special needs kids during Code Red drills or lockdowns.
One preschool teacher shared “social stories” on her blog, visual aids to tell young children about what different drills are, from fire drills to intruder alert drills. In a more practical example, another teacher wrote in a blog post a few years ago that she keeps a hammer by her window so she can easily break it if she and her students need to escape.
2018 was the worst year on record for school shootings in the United States, with 97 school shootings according to data compiled by the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security. A 2018 report from The Washington Post found that more than 220,000 students have experienced gun violence while at school since the Columbine shooting in 1999. Even though America is a country quietly primed for these tragedies, there’s something about the casual existence of active shooter preparation in these groups of crafty teachers that highlights a disconnect between the brutality of gun violence and the bright, playful aesthetics of the American classroom.
Most Americans would prefer to think of the classroom as a place where childhood is preserved in amber and shared, universal innocence stays forever fixed at a grade level. As gun violence now looms over these classrooms, teachers grappling with this reality are doing so the only way they know how: using the cute, cheery language they fill their lessons with. Seeing the stakes of this reality buried under glitter paint and floral fabric—an aesthetic that refuses to acknowledge this threat with the horror it warrants—evokes a larger refusal in this country to legislatively respond to gun violence. Every small, decorative prevention against a school shooting that hangs in a classroom is ultimately a reminder of America’s resignation in the face of death.
Joe McCormick and Quyen Nicol, two fifth grade teachers who teach in San Marcos, California, who run the Instagram @topfloorteachers, find that the classroom safety content increases after a national tragedy. “It’s the same thing that we talk about in the lunchroom, but now you’re seeing it everywhere because you’re seeing it from teachers who you only connect with online,” McCormick says.
“We’ve been doing this for a while and I definitely feel like the level has escalated,” Nicol, who has been teaching for a decade, says of the safety content. “But you do see a sense of community... what Instagram has done is given a voice to other teachers to feel that sense of camaraderie, like we are all in this together.”
“But it is definitely in the back of your head... you do think: if something would happen we would do that,” she adds.
“It’s awful that it has to happen but I’ve definitely picked up tips and tricks that have made me go back and look at my classroom,” says Naomi O’Brien, a first grade teacher based in Denver who Instagrams as @readlikearockstar. “I saw how a teacher rearranged her furniture that made it harder for someone to push the door in, so I do have furniture that’s right there for that purpose that could be easily quickly moved if that were to happen.”
“I was definitely hyper-aware of what I would do [after Parkland], I remember going into my classroom and thinking, what would I use as a weapon? What would I barricade the door with?” says Shana Ramin, a seventh and eighth grade teacher working in Metro Detroit who blogs and Instagrams as @helloteacherlady. “I think a lot of teachers going back into their classrooms after that happened had similar experiences and I think there’s more support [online] in general.”
“I don’t think that people realize all of the conversations and the little intricacies of the job,” McCormick says. “There’s a million different things that our minds are on.” What’s unnerving about these small, tossed-off tips and tricks posts designed to better accommodate classrooms is that they represent the realities of the “second job” teachers must work on a daily basis, one where the onus of protection for students is unfortunately placed on educators.
“I love my students but I’m not a trained security guard or a first responder by any stretch of the imagination... and if you don’t do the right things you will be judged,” O’Brien adds, noting that her son attends her school, further intensifying the pressure to keep it safe. “Like, this teacher didn’t protect her students, or the teacher failed to cover the windows. So there’s a lot of pressure on us that I don’t think that is fair.”
Tips for room arrangements and cute spreads on how to sew curtains is a reflection of how the threat of gun violence subtly impacts classrooms, but there are also teachers who want to make the threat of gun violence even more explicit.
“I think that there are a lot of comments along the lines of, well, this is the world we live in, and I see that as reactionary,” says Olivia Bertels, a sixth and seventh grade teacher working in Kansas City, whose account @missbertels_ takes an overtly political point of view. “We’re doing everything but regulating the thing that is causing all of this horrible chaos and destruction and death.”
Bertels, along with Utah teacher Brittany Wheaton, started the hashtag #ArmMeWith in response to Donald Trump’s suggestion that teachers be armed after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 dead. Using the hashtag, teachers protested the idea they needed guns, instead offering solutions like funding for students’ mental health or smaller class sizes. “It’s important as educators to be involved politically and [to] understand the way that politics influence our kids and influence our lives,” Wheaton says.
O’Brien echoes that, arguing that teachers have to do more than just focus on the crafty, superficial precautions. “While [safety DIYs] are great, you never know what that could save, I wish more of the focus would be on what could we do to not get to that point in the first place,” O’Brien says. “People need to then be talking about gun control and mental health... we need to have those conversations before we make the furniture and the cute curtain by the door window.”
But even though the topic of gun control and school shootings are innately political, many teachers rely on the softest and most Pinterest-friendly of terms, steering clear of overt political statements.
“It’s kind of like how people don’t want celebrities to talk about politics,” McCormick says. “We want the celebrities for whatever they’re famous for and so it’s kind of the same thing... a lot of teachers on Instagram try and maintain that people are here for my teaching content.”
And then there’s also the reality that many of these teachers are influencers in their online communities. Many teachers with strong online followings also use the site Teachers Pay Teachers, a site where they can sell classroom supplies and worksheets they’ve made to colleagues across the country, and this is cited by multiple teachers as a significant boost to their salary. Teachers need their content to perform well and often, it’s the pretty, palatable posts that perform well; so that’s what teachers feel pressured to deliver.
“The Insta accounts that do have a consistent feed, like bloggers, people tend to follow them more and [they] can almost seem inauthentic,” says Emily Kraus, a third to fifth grade math specialist based in Austin, Texas. “It’s supposed to be this colorful, fun, light-hearted environment. I know teaching is hard, but I don’t see it reflected on Instagram.”
“I try to be as open as I can because I think that side of the cutesy, Pinterest thing can be overwhelming,” Bertels says. “And I think by being open a lot of us are trying to get people to understand the pressures and the dangers that come up in our day-to-day that [don’t] have to do with just like laughing and smiling with our kids.”
As long as teachers continue to share online tips and tricks for shielding their students from the threat of gun violence, as if they were simply sharing book recommendations or math worksheets, in lieu of explicitly demanding gun reform, teachers will continue to carry the overwhelming burden of keeping their students alive in deadly situations. That responsibility haunts classrooms in the form of these minute classroom tips and tricks; window coverings made from innocuous Harry Potter fabric; story time notecards decorated with placid stick figures instructing children how to stay silent and still. These objects are masked in a camouflage of purity, one continually assumed of the American classroom.
“I do think sometimes when I see these posts I think oh, that’s a great idea, I should do that in my classroom,” O’Brien says. “Then you think that’s crazy because if I need that in my classroom, then here’s the situation I would need that in.”
Correction: A previous version of this story identified Joe McCormick and Quyen Nicol as from San Marcos, Texas. They are from San Marcos, California.