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This teacher survived the Uvalde shooting. Here's why she is returning to the job

From the doorway, Nicole Ogburn's fourth grade classroom looks bright and unassuming.

New, colorful JanSport backpacks hang from small chairs. Blue and white desks with dry erase surfaces sit in clusters around the room. A green bookshelf filled by rows of books is surrounded by beanbag chairs and fuzzy pillows.

This year, as Ogburn prepares her classroom, her first priority is not the decorations she usually spends the summer picking out. Instead, it's buying things to help her students – and herself – feel safer in the classroom.

"I bought a thing that you jam under the door so that they can't open the door. I bought a curtain to pull down so you can't see in my door if something was happening," Ogburn said. "We've just thought of more safety this year than, 'How cute's my room gonna look?'"

Ogburn is preparing for her first year as a teacher at a newly repurposed campus space, dubbed Uvalde Elementary School. For the seven years prior, Ogburn taught at Robb Elementary. The school shut down after the mass shooting in May in which 19 students and two teachers were killed. Ogburn, her co-teacher and her students survived, and escaped through a window of their classroom with the help of law enforcement.

Although the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District and state leaders have announced new security measures, the district has been under pressure from parents and other members of the community to offer more transparency and demonstrate its ability to keep students safe at school.

Ogburn said she felt there had been progress, though improvements are taking time.

"We're working towards being safe, and I think we're gonna be OK the first day of school, but it's not gonna be 100% done," she said. "But, it's in the process."

As she thought about physical security measures, she was also trying to anticipate what it would be like when students returned to the classroom for the first time since the May 24 shooting.

"I think I'm scared for how some of these kids are gonna react when they get here, and if I'm gonna be able to handle that part of it," she said.

This year, she's added one feature to her classroom to try to help her students express and manage their feelings. It's a black poster that asks students to answer one question: How do you feel? Each student has their own cut out marker, and each day Ogburn and her co-teacher plan to encourage students to put their marker next to a corresponding feeling like, "ready to learn," "confused," or "angry."

"I'm thinking, OK what if this happens this day, and the whole class is feeling anxious or upset? There's no way we're gonna teach a lesson," she said. "We've gotta figure out ... how are we gonna calm 'em down, how are we gonna make this better?"

Ogburn is also concerned for herself.

She said she wanted to get through the year "without being a complete emotional wreck," as she works through her grief, particularly the deaths of fellow fourth grade teachers, Eva Mireles and Irma Garcia.

For several years at Robb, Ogburn and her co-teacher Trisha Albarado taught in the classroom next door to Mireles and Garcia.

"It's already been hard not having my two friends here with us, but having my co-teacher with me has helped a lot," she said. "Cause we both said if you don't come back, I'm not coming back. If we're not together, we're gonna fight to be together. Cause we can't do it without each other right now."

Since the shooting, Ogburn said she's been treated for depression, anxiety and PTSD – as have other teachers who survived. She said what she heard and saw that day is something she'll live with for the rest of her life.

"Every day, there can be something that triggers an emotion that I don't want to have that day," she said. "And right now, every day is a constant reminder, cause everywhere I go, it's right in front of my face."

She almost didn't return to the classroom. But she thought about her own children, as well as Uvalde students.

"I thought, I gotta go back and show them first of all, we can't live in fear. I mean, you just never know when something's gonna happen," she said. "So I thought, I have to try not to live in that fear. I have to go forward and show these kids, OK, Ms. Ogburn can go back to school, then so can I."

Gaby Olivares and Yvette Benavides of Texas Public Radio translated this article into Spanish. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.