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Teaching After Tragedy

The massacre in Orlando has spurred many complicated thoughts for me and for everyone I know. It’s a time of sadness, anger, unity, energy. It can feel overwhelming. Can you imagine what it’s like for school-age children and adolescents? A former student asked me recently, what goes through a teacher’s mind in a situation like this, and what can a teacher do about it in class? These are challenging questions. Worthy of some extended talk.

What Kinds of Tragedy Do Teachers Deal With?

Like most people who’ve spent a lot of time in classrooms, I’ve had fairly extensive experience with significantly tragic events. In high school, a student I sat next to was killed in a robbery of his parents’ deli; he was shot in the chest with a shotgun as the perpetrators entered the store. When I was teaching high school, a group of students was killed in a car accident while they were on the way home from completing a group homework assignment. A student who was in a college class with me took his own life over a weekend. In another instance, I took over the class of a professor who was killed the day before in a motorcycle accident. I also taught the evening of September 11, 2001; I was teaching in Illinois, while my brother and brother-in-law, both EMTs in the New York Fire Department, were at ground zero saving lives, risking their own. They both made it out alive, but we didn’t hear from them till much later that day, and scores of their colleagues did not make it out.

Death, evil acts, horrible accidents, suicides, drug overdoses. All of these are situations that can have dramatic effects on students and an entire school. How is a teacher supposed to deal with all this, while processing the situation him or herself?

Being There for the Students

As in everything else, a teacher’s job is to be there for the students, even in the face of tragedy. There’s no rule book for this. Rather, there is just some advice I can offer, born from experience.

A teacher should be ready for how students may react:

  • Students can appear aloof, disaffected. This may be sincere, but is more likely to be denial. It takes time for students to be ready to understand what’s happened.
  • There can be a lot of crying. Young women in particular feel comfortable breaking down loudly.
  • Students will comfort each other. There will be hugging, stroking of hair, soft words spoken quietly.
  • Students can be angry. Some may want not to talk about it, may prefer to read quietly or go to the library.
  • If they knew about it ahead of time, some students will be absent.
  • Many students will want to talk. They will look to teachers for answers about small details and big, philosophical questions.
  • For many students, the situation will make older, more personal tragedies fresh again, and they may react in an unexpectedly severe manner.
  • Some students may make inappropriate jokes. They may be exhibiting a form of denial or using humor (awkwardly and inappropriately) to cope.

Students, like everyone else, will likely go through the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). These can take hours or days or longer. You may find students reacting to a tragedy long after it’s occurred. This is all okay. It’s all normal.

How will the school react?

In times of tragedy, school staff pull together for the sake of the students and for their own needs and comfort. In times, most schools will do at least some of the following:

  • The principal will make a school-wide announcement, providing information, ensuring the students they are safe, and beginning the process of communication about the situation.
  • Instead of making a school-wide announcement, the principal may instead provide information and guidance for teachers to give to students.
  • Counselors will be made available for all students as needed. For students who break down and are inconsolable or for those students who simply want to talk to someone privately, there will be professional staff ready for them.
  • Veteran teachers will give advice to newer teachers and may visit their classes to ensure all is going ok.
  • The school may host an assembly, a memorial service, or a vigil to create unity and honor those lost in or affected by the event.
  • The school may engage in charitable acts to assist with recovery or healing efforts. These are important ways to respond as a community to negativity in a positive manner.

What Should a Teacher Do?

Again, there is no rule book here. Each student, each class, each tragedy is different. The best we can do is be calm, gentle, accepting, warm, human. Here are some things I’ve learned to do from my experiences on these days:

  • Take the pulse of the class. See if they want to talk quietly, read alone, continue with the lesson as planned, or have a class discussion. Don’t come in with a plan, but instead be prepared to enact what the students seem to need from the class that day.
  • Acknowledge the students’ right to be upset. They may not even understand why they are upset. It’s okay, and they need you to say that.
  • Do tell students about the stages of grief to help them understand what they may be feeling. It helps for them to know they are not alone in what they are feeling. They should not be upset, for example, if they are angry at someone for dying; that’s often part of the process.
  • Don’t allow raised voices or angry debates. The time for debate can come later, when the facts are out and heads have cooled. The early stages are about understanding and coming together as a community.
  • Be gentle with the students on this day. If you have to correct them–if for example, a student makes a hurtful comment or joke (which some do as part of their processing)–correct them especially kindly. It’s helpful to remind them that everyone is confused and hurting, and they might be unknowingly adding to the other students’ pain.
  • Keep it together. It’s ok to show sadness and even to let a few tears flow. But you need to be strong for your students. Breaking down in front of them can scare them. You can break down later with those who support you.
  • Help the students process the information by letting them ask and answer each other’s questions. Let them do Internet research as they talk.
  • If the situation involved something specific (LGBTQ issues, religious fanaticism, terrorism, a specific illness), think about bringing in some brief, helpful information to get productive conversation going. When I taught on the evening of 9/11, I brought in some information on the “rhetoric of terrorism,” which helped the college students (and me) think about what could be going on in the attacks. But don’t bring in too much information, and be careful. The students may not be ready for it.
  • Let your students go see a counselor or to the library, if they ask. Don’t let them go where there is no adult.
  • If a student asks to go to the bathroom and seems upset, let them go. After a couple of minutes, send two of that student’s friends to check on him or her. You send two, so one of them can come back to tell you if there is a serious problem.
  • If it seems like a student needs a hug, ask, “Is it OK if I give you a hug?” If the student says yes, go ahead. If the students says no, say, “OK, please let me know if there’s something I can do to help you. I’m here for you.”
  • Help the students see the positive, which can be very difficult, but is important. Remember Mr. Rogers’ advice about looking for the helpers. If the students come up with ideas to help somehow, let them make plans: a vigil, a card, a memorial site, collecting money or supplies to send.
  • Leave the students with a message of hope and love. People are resilient. We can survive terrible events and they can make us stronger, better people for them. Tell the students you and the entire school staff are there for them, and you will be again tomorrow.

This is Hard

Coming to school on tragic days is one of the toughest parts of teaching. It’s also, of course, one of the most important. I remember vividly these days from my own experience as a student and as a teacher. They are some of the worst days, but they are also some of the best days because they affirmed my faith in people who come together and I have made warm connections with people to whom I am still bonded from those tragedies.

I invite colleagues and others to add any additional advice or resources to the comments section below. Thanks.