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President Heafner's Message: A Mission of Advocacy and Remembrance

Tina L. Heafner, Ph.D.
NCSS President 2019-2020

As an elected officer of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), I am frequently approached by colleagues and community members who articulate a need for NCSS to speak out on contemporary issues that affect the professional and personal lives of social studies educators. This call to action was embraced by the NCSS Board of Directors in 2018 when we established a new mission statement to advocate and build capacity for high-quality social studies by providing leadership, services, and support to educators. We were deliberate in placing advocacy first. As the largest professional organization of PK-16 social studies educators and social studies professionals, NCSS has taken up the mantel in leading conversations regarding hard history, difficult social, political, and economic issues, and the root causes of these. Let me offer a specific example of how NCSS is putting advocacy into our organizational practice. 

This July, our nation faced yet another mass shooting. NCSS mourned with our social studies friends as our country grappled with the aftermath of the tragedy in Gilroy, California, then El Paso, Texas, and next by Dayton, Ohio. We could not remain silent as we watched the increased frequency of mass shootings and the continued threat of gun violence in America just as we had done with the NCSS Response to the Tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia. The NCSS Board of Directors partnered with the College and University Faculty Assembly (CUFA), an associated group of NCSS, to develop a response to mass shootings. On August 16, 2019, NCSS issued a response to mass shootings. This collaboration with the CUFA Board of Directors demonstrates the capacity of leadership within our organization’s collective membership. While I am immensely proud of our joint efforts, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the vital writing contributions of CUFA members and the thoughtful foresight of the NCSS Board of Directors.  

This statement not only embodies NCSS’s mission for advocacy but is one that acknowledges how mass shootings and gun violence affect far too many American lives. Our country remains polarized on what has become a politicized, rather than personal, issue. The tragedy is personal. I know this first-hand. 

April 30, 2019, started just like any day with the typical morning routine of getting my son and daughter to school and then shifting attention to my work at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNC Charlotte). April 30 was the last day of the end of the spring semester. In higher education, this marks the beginning of the exam period and the end of the academic year. Exam period is an intense time, not just for students, but also for professors, administrators, and staff. There are many final papers and exams to grade along with the program, annual, and budget reporting that comprise the closeout of an academic year. For all educators, the end of an academic year is stressful with its finite deadlines, numerous paperwork demands, and preparations for graduation. My work agenda for this day was to complete a final review of the master’s theses of thirty M.Ed. in Middle and Secondary graduate students. This is a program that I direct, and I also chair their master’s thesis committees. The M.Ed. Master’s thesis defense was scheduled for a Saturday in May. We do this to accommodate working professionals who wish to invite administrators, family, and others to the culminating event for their degree. I immersed myself in these lengthy papers without much thought of activities on the campus of the UNC Charlotte. Despite the cloud of exams and stress that accompanies them, there’s always a bubbling excitement and energy in anticipation of graduation, a celebration of achievement milestones, as well as summer recess and the success of finishing a year of academic studies.  

My work continued into the evening until it was interrupted with, “Run, Hide, Fight,” and “Secure yourself immediately.” These texts are code for an active shooter on campus. The campus went into lockdown. Then my mom called, “Are you okay? Where are you? Have you seen the news?” Yes, I was okay, but I could not confirm that my colleagues, friends, and most importantly, students were safe. That evening the campus remained in lockdown until late evening hours. The hours were filled with internet searches for information to understand what happened and need to learn details of the day’s events. I read numerous tweets, texts, and searched for all forms of news. My emotions were mixed with concern for students, faculty, and staff who were directly impacted by the shooting, sadness for the loss of innocent lives and grief for their families, joy when learning colleagues and students were safe, and comfort in unity as I talked to friends and colleagues who reached out to express concern. What followed in the next hours, days, and weeks were more layers of emotions and reactions to emerging university decisions. University leadership initially canceled exams through Monday. I then decided to suspend all exams and issued a statement directing faculty to work with students on an individual basis to determine final grades. My immediate response was to focus my energy and thoughts on my students and their emotional needs. A flood of emails and calls poured in as undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students wanted to mourn together while offering comfort to each other and share their feelings of sadness and anger. We grappled with our overwhelming collective feelings and the betrayal of hope, comfort, and safety. Amidst these conversations, there was the pragmatic need to figure out strategies to move forward even with canceled exams, no master’s degree defenses, and interrupted comprehensive doctoral exams. Graduation would and did continue as planned for the spring semester despite the abrupt end to the semester and academic year. 

Many university alumni and graduates of the various programs I have directed over the many years reached out to share their collective concerns for our beloved UNC Charlotte. The outpouring from social studies colleagues was humbling. Perhaps one of the most profound emails I received was from David Hicks, a higher education colleague, and friend, who offered the following words: “While you support your students, just make sure you get support as well during this time.” When I read his email, I realized that there had been no pause in my push forward to seek personal counsel or get grief support. David’s wisdom was lamentable, a voice of experience, yet an essential reminder that amidst tragic events educators (because of their strong desire to care for the well-being of students) tend to overlook their own needs, yet to be strong for students, educators need support too.

Another friend and colleague in NCSS, Mert Martens, shared with me her personal story of being a teacher at a school close to Columbine High School and how the shooting affected her, her students, her school, and the broader community. She reminded me that tragedy affects all members of a community, and we all grieve in different ways. Both of these messages and the many others sent are important examples of the power of a professional community, like NCSS. To all of my social studies colleagues and NCSS friends who sent messages, texts, emails, posted deep concerns on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, or called, thank you for taking the time out of your hectic schedules to send words of sympathy and encouragement.  

NCSS reached out to UNC Charlotte. I was also humbled when UNC Charlotte Chancellor Philip Dubois emailed me personally to acknowledge the letter sent by NCSS and his appreciation for NCSS’s expression of support. The letter signed by 2018-2019 NCSS President India Meissel and Executive Director Larry Paska stated, “Our mission at the National Council for the Social Studies (“NCSS”) is to advocate and build capacity for high-quality social studies by providing leadership, services, and support to educators. Our members include hundreds of college and university faculty in social studies education nationwide, who will support their students and their school communities in the days ahead as we cope with this tragedy together.” The outpouring from across the country was very comforting for a grieving Charlotte and Niner community.

August 15, 2019, UNC Charlotte began another academic year. This year was different from previous new school year kickoffs. How could it not be? Tragedy does not heal; it leaves scars. Tragedy changes your very essence and communities forever. On April 30, 2019, two UNC Charlotte students, Ellis Reed Parlier and Riley Howell, lost their lives, and four students, Rami Alramadhan, Sean DeHart, Emily Houpt, and Drew Pescaro, were injured. April 30 will forever be part of UNC Charlotte’s history. However difficult, our university family and our broader Charlotte community resolve not to be defined by violence, but rather to be uplifted by our unity. We are all Niners, and our collective call to action is #CharlotteStrong. Our community resolves to remember the personal sacrifices of those directly affected by the shooting, to memorialize the acts of bravery, to communicate to others that mass shootings should not be tolerated, and to demand action to address root causes of gun violence to ensure such tragedies do not happen on other campuses.  

Sadly, history reminds us that this is not the first mass shooting on a college campus and that we still have unresolved political and social issues that prohibit the guarantee of school safety. On April 16, 2007, 32 people were gunned down on the campus of Virginia Tech, the institution where David Hicks works. Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School remind us that PK-12 schools are not immune to mass shootings. UNC Charlotte is but one of a growing number of educational communities, and communities in general, who has been forced to confront gun violence and mourn the needless loss of innocent lives. 

In 2019, there have been 22 mass shootings in schools in which someone has been injured or killed. From January 1 to September 3, 2019, there have been 19 mass shootings in the United States, a count that doesn’t include UNC Charlotte. In August alone, 53 people died because of mass shootings. Moreover, there are tens of thousands of individuals who have been killed as a result of gun violence in 2019 with lower wealth, urban communities experiencing a disproportionate risk for gun violence. Four of the five most deadly gun massacres in American history occurred in the past seven years [October 1, 2017 in Las Vegas, NV; June 12, 2016 in Orlando, FL; December 14, 2012 in Newton, CT (Sandy Hook); November 6, 2017 in Sutherland Springs, TX (First Baptist Church)]. The rise of mass shootings in the USA and the increasing threats of violence in lower wealth communities continue to plague our nation.  

Gun violence is one of the most pressing public health and social issues of our time; it has galvanized the nation’s attention since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, which has been followed by many other mass shootings. According to one source, since Columbine, there have been 2,227 mass shootings. More recently communities of Gilroy, California, El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio reel from the loss of life due to gun violence. NCSS’s response to mass shootings not only offers NCSS’s profound condolences for these mourning communities and all before, but commits to action in our social studies communities who face the challenge of facilitating deliberations on the complex and highly politicized topic of gun control and related policy solutions in our K-16 classrooms. This statement offers social studies teachers, and educators in general, resources grounded in recent research in the field, and “insights for (1) teaching civic life by exploring political emotion; (2) teaching civic life as the art of practicing peaceful disagreement and conflict; and (3) teaching civic life as creative innovation.” The statement is a conversation starter for confronting the ignored “pleas of communities of color to confront the systemic issues associated with gun violence” and for tackling the political barriers that block policy solutions with overwhelming support from the public. In 2017, NCSS offered a similar response to the tragedy in Charlottesville, VA.  This earlier response includes resources for how to prepare to teach about mass shootings that extend those offered in the more recent response.

The NCSS Board of Directors has intentionally supported public responses and position statements that offer not only a perspective on an underserved area in social studies or contemporary issues but also provided strategies and resources in support of classroom practice.  In our efforts on behalf of the social studies community, NCSS seeks to create living documents that invite ideas from our members and the general public. I invite you to join NCSS, its members, and the general public in sharing resources and sustaining conversations about civic life and civic competence. Please consider contributing to the growing body of knowledge of resources shared in our publications and interactive documents. NCSS aims to crowdsource ideas for how to teach about mass shootings and gun violence and to share these through our digital outreach on our Facebook page (a conversation will be conducted via a thread starting on Facebook at 9:30 am on Wednesday, September 25, 2019).

At the 99th Annual NCSS Conference in Austin, TX, November 22-24, 2019, NCSS has partnered with Kent State University to kick off their listening tour in remembrance of May 4, 1970. This includes a featured panel of speakers who will share first-hand accounts of the events of May 4 and the Wick Poetry Center’s Listening Wall exhibit, which includes archival footage, listening and viewing portals, and an attendee interface to tap words in transcripts to generate a digital word pool with which users can create a poem. The Listening Wall also includes interactive, conference participant created video reflections and a web-based teacher-voice platform that encourages and supports community curation. Each visitor’s experience of the exhibit will culminate in a creative response to the content, challenging each person to reflect upon how issues of equality, justice, and human rights –then and now –are deeply connected. The goal of this interactive exhibit is: Listen. Reflect. Respond. Interpretative stories of how we, as learners engage with sources, is a powerful reminder that we are makers of history. 

As we curate our understanding of the past and present, let us not forget that our NCSS professional community is an important source of support and comfort. Professional networks can help us confront the aftermath of tragedy. Professional networks grow through engagement in communities of practice. NCSS’s Annual Conference is a leading resource for developing ideas, identifying strategies, and creating a curriculum to help children, adolescents, and young adults understand the world and society in which they live and to embrace their responsibility to lead communities they will one day inhabit as adults. I hope you will join me in expanding your professional networks and communities in Austin this November at the first co-located conference of National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), Texas Council for the Social Studies (TCSS), and National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE). To register for the 99th Annual Conference of the National Council for the Social Studies see https://www.socialstudies.org/conference

For more information on the National Council for the Social Studies’ response to mass shootings, see https://www.socialstudies.org/news/response-mass-shootings-ncss.

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