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Teaching on Days After

I was a third grade teacher on 9/11/2001. My then-husband, a Navy Deep Sea Diver, was at home recovering from surgery, and watched first one, then another tower fall. The area where we lived–Hampton Roads, VA–was home to every branch of the military. My father worked in what he called the 'Puzzle Palace', the Pentagon, part of the time, even though he worked in the same area as I did for the rest of the time, and that was not unusual for that area. Parents started pulling their children out of school by mid-morning. Some from fear that this area, with nuclear submarines, air force fighter jets, a CIA facility, and more would be next. Some because of family and friends in New York City, or loved ones working at the Pentagon that day. Some because they just had no idea what to do in a situation such as this. and in my third year of teaching, I didn't know what to do. During the day, while it was happening... the next day... in the days and weeks that followed... I remember a lot of hugs, a lot of story time, a lot of play time. I remember that I kept teaching, but I could not tell you what I taught.

Six years later, I was a gifted resource teacher in a middle school in Norfolk, Virginia, and a student came to my office, concerned because of the treatment he was receiving from other students following the Virginia Tech Massacre. Students were blaming him, calling him names, asking why his people were so messed up, and he said "but I'm Vietnamese, that guy was from South Korea. Why do people gotta be like this?"

In 2012, I was an Academic Director at non-profit summer program for gifted students, living and working in the NYC suburb of Connecticut ;) My coworker lived in a small town called Newtown. His children didn't attend Sandy Hook Elementary School, but our small office held him close as he fell to his knees and sobbed with the news that shattered his community. I volunteered in an elementary school the next day, out of fear, and out of insistence that I would not let that fear take hold. From time to time, I get a Facebook memory on December 15th that just says "I'm volunteering in an elementary school" and I wonder why I wrote something as simple as that with no picture or context... and then I remember, and I reflect on the lives lost.

Some memories are crystal clear. I can remember the class I was in, the post I wrote, the conversation I had with a student... George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. The Las Vegas concert shooting. Charleston church. Elijah Wood. Trayvon Martin. Atlanta salon shootings. But there have been so many instances of violence, particularly racist crimes and acts of hate, that I am hesitant to list them all and detract from the purpose of this post: teaching on days after.

You will likely hear different opinions/thoughts about this, so I only offer my own:

Allow space, particularly for historically marginalized people, to share/vent/express emotions about what is going on. Prioritize space for and/or lift up the voices of the group that is deeply impact by the event, i.e., the racist attack in Buffalo was a targeted attack on the Black community. This is NOT a place for white individuals to say "what about Black on Black crime" or "it's a gun issue not a racism issue" it's a place for healing. THINK before you write in this board (or whatever sharing space you create): is it True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary and Kind. Yes, in discussion boards, I want you to push each others' thinking, and yes, it is okay to have other opinions. That's not what this space is about. It is about support. It is about healing, recovering from trauma–racial trauma. And don't get caught up on "well it's true"- first, check your facts (it may not be true!) but second, that's only the T in THINK!

Consider: what am I doing today that promotes identity development (academic identity development, racial identity development, social identity development...) and that is culturally responsive to support all the students in my class to support them in their time of need? I suggest a T-chart to start with, for each area.

For each of these areas, reflect on where you need help and support, and what resources you need to strengthen your practice, and create a plan to address these areas. Now broaden that and think: am I just doing it right now, in response to a crisis? Or is this what I have implemented in my normal, daily instruction? Right now, you are responding to a crisis, this is a "band-aid" response, but ideally, this is what you want to have as your norm.

Recognize that emotions are normal. Shifts in behavior are normal, tears, anger, confusion- all typical. This will depend on the situation, but frequently, these "days after" events are every day situations where people were just living their lives. And then they were dead. Going to school, the grocery story, the mall, a concert, walking home, in their own bed. I lived a few miles from shooting in a mall outside of DC, where a went to the movies all the time. I worked for DC Public Schools, and one of the middle schools I went to frequently, one day I walked by a cop car and a lumpy tarp on the ground on the street corner across the street from the school entrance. I asked what happened and it was a homicide an hour earlier ... it wasn't roped off with police tape, there wasn't a school lockdown or even a closed off entrance, directing students/families/visitors to a different door, because that was the status quo in southeast DC. Sometimes ambivalence or even bravado is normal, but sometimes it is covering other emotions.

The space that you've created already will set up the needed safe space of love, sharing, and caring. I don't like the term classroom management, I think the term itself sets the wrong tone of a top-down approach of teacher as a disciplinarian and rule-setter and children with no voice or control of their space or place. I prefer learning environment or shared space. How you set up this shared space at the beginning of the year will determine how your students feel now about sharing their thoughts and feelings about what is happening. It is ideal if you have an established environment where thoughts and feelings are welcome, where students feel loved, honored, and valued for themselves. It is harder to create a safe space in the aftermath of trauma, however take time to try to establish this environment prior to engaging in a discussion.

Which brings me to...Talk about It. I think on "days after" teachers, parents, adults in general can be scared to talk about what's going on. "Kids are too young to handle the issues." "I don't want to scare them." "What if they're scared to go to school after this?" On the teacher end in particular, the thought can be "it's better for the parent to handle their way" or "it's too political". The fact of the matter is, chances are, the kiddos know about it, somehow, someway. Radio. Internet. Bus. Lunchroom. So instead of talking about it, what they have instead is a whole bunch of adults avoiding talking about it. And just the kids making sense of it on their own, with youtube, tiktok, instagram, and discord for advice. Don't sugar coat it: it's not about bad men doing bad things, mental health wasn't at fault and while we certainly need gun control laws, it is not an issue of gun violence alone: this was an act of racism, of white supremacy.

You don't need to reinvent the wheel! There are resources out there to help you engage in these kinds of discussions.

It is not easy to have these conversations on days after, but they are important. “Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.” – Maya Angelou


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