Sandy Hook Elementary School teacher Kaitlin Roig rushed her first-grade class into the bathroom, barricaded the door and kept them quiet -- and safe -- until the gunfire ceased in the hall.
Victoria Soto, 27, was killed after ushering her students into a classroom closet and placing her body between them and the assailant, according to the New York Daily News. Her colleague, Anne Marie Murphy, 52, died shielding students from a rain of rifle bullets that killed 20 children, all 6 or 7, in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, according to Newsday.
The massacre has drawn attention to efforts by teachers to protect children during the second-deadliest shooting in U.S. history. It marks a shift, however fleeting, in the image of public employees, accustomed to political fights over union power, pensions and whether schools would improve if teachers were easier to fire.
“It’s a shame that it takes a tragedy for people to acknowledge the good work we do,” said Kristi Barel, 35, a teacher from Shelby Township, Michigan, who this month was among those protesting against a law that allows workers to opt out of paying union dues. “When you feel like you’re under attack, it hurts.”
Teaching has been a beleaguered trade since the recession, which led school districts to cut about 287,000 jobs as states cut aid and tax revenue tumbled, according to data from the U.S. Labor Department.
Their unions have parried political attacks. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has called leaders of the state’s largest teachers’ union “political thugs.” Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker restricted public unions’ bargaining rights in 2011, a step that triggered a U.S. debate about pay and pensions. The Heritage Foundation, a Washington research group that favors small government, has said that public school teachers are overpaid by $120 billion every year.
Democrats have also endorsed policies that have been criticized by teachers’ unions. President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program awarded grants to states that link teacher evaluation to student performance. That issue was at the center of contract negotiations in Chicago that led teachers to strike for the first time since 1987.
“We’ve seen more clashes between school superintendents and unions than we have in recent years,” said Arthur Levine, a former education professor who is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, New Jersey. “We’ve seen more clashes between policy makers and school systems than we have in recent years.”
It’s taken a toll. MetLife’s annual survey found that the number of teachers who say they are very satisfied tumbled to 44 percent by 2011 from 59 percent in 2009. They were more than four times as likely to feel insecure in their job than in 2006.
“If we’re very critical of unions, it’s very hard if you’re a member of the union to believe they aren’t being critical of you,” Levine said.
Since the Sandy Hook tragedy, a more concrete image of teachers has taken hold as American television broadcasts have stayed focused on mourning and acts of heroism.
“If anything comes out of this tragedy, it’s that Americans will see how dedicated these educators were, as they are in classrooms across America,” said William Bushaw, executive director of PDK International, a Bloomington, Indiana- based association representing teachers.
Roig, 29, in an interview with ABC News, recalled whisking the children into the bathroom after Adam Lanza, 20, shot his way into the school and went on a rampage -- firing as many as 11 shots into each of his victims. She told them she loved them.
“I wanted that to be one of the last things they heard,” she said.
Six school employees were killed in the attack, including Dawn Hochsprung, the principal, who was shot after confronting the attacker. Her office left the public address system on, which warned the rest of the school.
Mary Sherlach, 56, a school psychologist, also died. Rebecca Castegner, a 20-year-old former student, said in an interview that Sherlach was a substitute mother to children having difficulty adjusting to school. “She was there for the kids if they needed her,” Castegner said.
Lauren Rousseau, 30, became a full-time teacher at Sandy Hook this year after years working as a substitute, according to a statement from her mother.
“Lauren wanted to be a teacher from before she even went to kindergarten,” Terri Rousseau said. “We will miss her terribly and will take comfort knowing that she had achieved that dream.”
The family of Soto said she died a hero, an image they want her to be remembered by.
Ken Pires, a deputy sheriff in Franklin County, Massachusetts, came to Newtown on Dec. 17 to pay his respects. He visited a makeshift memorial, where candles and images were left to commemorate the dead.
“To do what they did in such fear is amazing,” Pires said. “Twenty babies died, but also six heroes.”
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