Sunday, June 21, 2015

Tragedy in the Classroom

Written on Thursday, June 18

Waking to the news of tragedy in Charleston this morning had me flummoxed to say the least.  I’m still processing what happened and to be honest, it would be easier to compartmentalize it and remove it from my daily vernacular, but I can’t.

As a teacher, I have a huge responsibility to the students in my care - a responsibility that calls me to be a model of how to deal with tragedies of this level. My students look to me to learn how to process big events that cause us all to question.  They voice their questions and want to know my opinions and concerns.  It’s a responsibility that is not taken lightly.

Over 15 years, I’ve experienced my share of tragedy in the classroom.  Some have tiptoed into the lives of my students quietly and were delicately placed in my care while others busted in through the door and affected families and communities -  The World Trade Center attacks, Hurricane Katrina, students who have been abandoned, as well as, violence among families, local communities, and world wide.

I’ve taught students from all walks of life – affluent, middle-class, impoverished; on both sides of every issue; from Democrat and Republican families; liberal, moderate, and conservative; all races; American, Russian, Korean, Filipino, Asian, black, white; quiet, charismatic, magnetic; below average, average, and advanced, and more. 


There have been times where it hasn’t been easy to find common ground when dealing with complex issues in our society. 

When September 11th occurred, I was teaching in a school with a strong military presence.  Many of our parents were called to action and deployed to fight the war on terrorism.  My classroom was a mix of families who supported that effort and those who didn’t, but it didn’t change the fact that my students and I had to coexist in the same classroom despite the opinions that were shared over dinner tables.

When Hurricane Katrina caused the heart of New Orleans to pour into my rural school district and my town, the teachers in my school had to help pick up the pieces of brokenness – lost homes, lost lives, failed systems – without pointing fingers of blame.  We had to help students process what had happened.  I remember Haley who I had to physically pry away from her mother each morning as she yelled and screamed and cried.  By the end of the experience all of us were in tears.  Haley did not speak for the two weeks she was with me.  She had lost her home, her school, and didn’t know where her friends were.  During her time with me, she wouldn’t leave my side.  If I had to be out of the room, she needed to come with me because she would meltdown.  She experienced so much loss in such a short time she couldn’t bear to have me out of her sight.

The events across our nation over the last year have sparked anger, hurt, and fear among many and have trickled down to dining room tables and carpools around the world.  Students across our nation pick up every nuance, every word, every opinion that is shared within ear shot – right, wrong, justified, or ridiculous – and they bring it onto playgrounds, into cafeterias, onto the football field, and on the school bus – all creating a firestorm of emotion that students often don’t know how to navigate, but are expected to handle.
Over the years, I’ve tried a few things that helped not only my students process events, but me as well.

1.  Build Relationships:  I don’t know if there is a more critical thing to do with my students than this.  Be the go to for your students and create a relationship that will allow each one to come to you when life gets too big to handle on their own or they are experiencing emotions they don’t understand.  Stand in the gap for your students.  When one does come to you – LISTEN FIRST before you try to offer solutions.  I wonder if some of the kids and adults who have created the violence had someone who did that for them.

2. Provide an opportunity to express emotions: This can be tricky, but it can be done and it can be powerful.  When 9/11 occurred, I gave my students an index card to write what they were feeling anonymously.  Questions were asked, frustrations were expressed, hurt was exposed.  I then took each index card and filtered through the words.  The next day, we created a circle and I read some of the comments and questions that were gleaned from the class.  I did it again this year when our class experienced some events that rocked the world of some of my students.  This time I took the comments and created a wordle to display what my students were feeling.  This activity was probably one of the most powerful things we did this year.  It was silent and it was tense to begin with, but then a dialogue began to occur between two groups of students who had misunderstandings of one another.

3. Don’t go it alone: Tap into resources outside of your classroom.  Ask your media specialist for books to read with your kids that mirror the issues that are being faced.  Utilize the guidance counselor or other staff to help you teach students how to process emotions.  Keep in contact with parents.  Let them know what their child is experiencing so the dialogue can continue at home.

4.  Love: It sounds so simple, but it is so hard some days.  As a teacher, I may be the only example of loving without judgment.  There are days that I fail, but my students know that I love first.  I need to be the visual of what love looks like.  Be intentional with your students and celebrate the differences that make each unique.  Find the good in each one, every day.   Love through the hurt, the anger, the fear, and the tears.

How do you deal with tragedy in your classroom?  Share your ideas in the comments below.  We can all benefit from multiple tools in our toolbox for situations that require a delicate touch.


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