Nearly 25 years ago, Monica Byron stumbled into teaching when a friend pointed her toward a job she had not sought.

"I was kind of looking for a job and it was in the schools," said Byron, vice president of Education Minnesota, the union that represents more than 86,000 teachers in the state. "I just felt that calling. I knew when I walked in, it was where I belonged. It filled my heart."

That commenced a journey through education that included a quarter-century as a teacher in the Richfield Public Schools system — one of the few Black teachers in her school — and her role now as union advocate for thousands of teachers. She understands their needs. Byron left the classroom only a year ago. She understands the significance of ensuring their safety, too.

During her time as a teacher, she worked to build strong relationships with students. On a difficult day seven years ago, one of those students — who had behavioral challenges — bit her.

"Of course, my reactions, at that moment, I wanted to scream," she said. "It hurt. But at the same time, I had to think about the kids, I had to think about him. He knew he had done something wrong. I could see it in his face."

Our teachers should always feel safe.

I don't believe our children collectively pose a threat to teachers, despite highly publicized incidents across the country that have demonstrated the extremes.

And I choose to ignore the racists and bigots who attempt to turn any dialogue about school safety, especially when that conversation involves schools in diverse areas, into an opportunity to misrepresent and stereotype BIPOC kids. I am, however, interested in a real conversation about teachers, the students they're asked to educate and the safe environment necessary to facilitate their respective goals.

"I've seen administrators supporting their teachers when teachers decide that a student does need attention outside the classroom and administrators do need to listen to educators when they say situations are unsafe," Byron said. "We need to hire those [education support professionals] ... and get them training and hire trained teachers and counselors and social workers and psychologists."

Teachers are judged by lagging test scores in a world that's still wounded by a global pandemic. There are behavioral concerns for some and mental health challenges for an increasing number of post-pandemic students, all with staffing shortages and, at some schools, limited resources. There is the threat of school shootings and other forms of violence that can interrupt the learning experience.

"The data also indicates that we're dealing with so much more, as well, if you look at the safety data that we collected last year," said Joe Gothard,superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools. "As a leader of a large system, I think communication is the most important piece. I heard our staff loud and clear that they don't always feel safe, and I also heard our students not really talking about safety so much but talking about a lot of other things: going to see the school support folks they have in their school, sometimes needing a break in their school day."

To Byron, the issue is complicated. But teachers, she said, aren't asking anyone to do their jobs for them. Their only request is for the support, resources and staffing to do what they've always done: build bonds with the children in their classroom and work together with communities to push them toward scholastic success.

Her perspective compelled me to consider my guilt in this conversation. I, too, have become so laser-focused on my own life and post-pandemic boundaries that I have not always thought about community as much as I've emphasized my own children's progress. But we can't win that way.

At some point, "me and mine" has to become "ours" if we expect to emerge from this chapter, well, better.

I'd like to shake this selfishness and do more to help students beyond my household and do my part to support our greatest citizens: teachers.

Byron's heart for her students remains. She was physically and emotionally hurt by one of her students. In the moment, however, she only considered the fate of that student.

Would he be punished? Would he get the mental health resources he might have needed? Would he get another chance?

At a time when she should have been concerned about herself, Byron only thought of protecting a student who had just harmed her.

"I needed that kid to be removed so they could get help," she said. "I needed to get support, but there was no adult to help take care of my kids. … I was going to heal. I knew that piece. It wasn't about, 'Let's suspend this kid. Let's do all these things with this kid.' It was, 'What happened for this reaction to take place?' To me, that's what educators are going through. At the end of the day, you want what's best for those kids. I always wanted what was best for kids, even sometimes at my expense."

Myron Medcalf is a local columnist for Star Tribune and recipient of the 2022 Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award for general column writing.