SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 25, 2013

'We have to be strong for our students'

Danvers teachers face challenges amid the grief

By Jonathan Phelps
Staff writer

---- — DANVERS — Danvers High teachers are grieving — they lost a colleague, and one of their students is accused of killing her.

But through it all, they still need to support hundreds of young people who have been devastated by the tragedy.

“For us I think it goes a little deeper because it feels like a sense of betrayal for our mission as teachers,” said Christopher Hopkins, a history teacher who is head of the Danvers teachers’ union.

“We have to get over that. We have to be strong for our students and colleagues.”

Hopkins, who lives a few blocks away from the school, awoke to the sound of helicopters circling the school on Wednesday and wondered what was going on. It was news he never wanted to hear.

Yesterday he was back at the school, which was open so that grief counselors could help those dealing with the tragedy. Teachers and students tried to console each other the best they could, he said.

“There were a lot of tears,” Hopkins said. “We want to get the students back to a normal routine as soon as possible. They need that structure and order in their lives.”

Hopkins, who has taught at the school for 10 years, said there is a great atmosphere at the school with the renovation of the building and many young teachers. They need to maintain that spirit in the wake of the tragedy, he said.

“We have to give a positive message out of this tragedy,” Hopkins said. “This is a defining moment for us and we can’t let it be a negative moment.”

This is no easy task with growing issues revolving around school violence, such as the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 20 children and six adults last year.

“We feel that,” Hopkins said. “We certainly feel a lot of pressure. We are almost like foot soldiers in dealing with all the social and cultural issues of the country.”

Mary-Lou Breitborde, professor of education at Salem State University, said it’s a tough time to be a teacher amid the violence in schools across the country. Schools have traditionally been known as a safe haven for both students and teachers, she said.

“That is increasingly less true,” she said. “It is difficult because you can’t have an atmosphere of fear in schools. You can’t be fearful and pay attention to teaching and learning.”

Breitborde said schools and society in general need to find ways to make school safer without a sense of fear.

“I’m not sure what that is,” she said. “I think we all need to have these conversations.”

Mike Manson, who retired from teaching history at Danvers High three years ago, stopped by the memorial for Colleen Ritzer yesterday, even though he didn’t know her. He taught at the school for 11 years.

“I drove by and started crying,” he said. “I don’t why I started crying, so I had to stop.”

He said he has been receiving emails from former colleagues. “It is very hard on them, very difficult,” he said.

“When people talk about education, the teachers get critiqued a lot,” Manson said. “But they don’t talk about the good people they are and the community they create.”

Hopkins said it will take a while for students to process the tragedy.

“We will have classes, but we expect to deal with the issues and answer questions,” he said. “The ‘why’ questions are the hardest to answer. We really can’t answer those.”

Through it all, Hopkins wants to stay positive.

“We are going to come out of this,” he said, “and come out of this better.”

Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or by email at jphelps@salemnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.