This week I was supposed to start a blog series on Culturally Responsive Teaching. I’ve started writing the blog three times and can’t get past the first line. My first writing attempt was last Wednesday, the same day of the most recent school shooting in our nation. More students lost their lives. More educators lost their lives. Once again friends and families lost loved ones. I can’t begin to type about being culturally responsive when I can’t assure my own children and students that they will be safe in their schools. This conversation—the conversation about school safety—is the most important conversation we need to have right now. We need answers to the question, “How can we keep our children safe”? While there is a lot of controversy about the issue that surrounds the school safety conversation, for the purpose of this blog we will discuss what we can do as educators and citizens to make our students feel safe in their classrooms and what we can do as administrators and citizens to make our teachers feel safe at their jobs.
Let’s start with what we can do at home. The National Association of School Psychologists offers seven key tips in the article Talking to Children About Violence: Tips For Parents and Teachers. As I read through this article, as well as several other articles, the number one action that I saw repeated was, “Make time to talk.” Give children time to talk about their feelings and validate their feelings. Children’s ability to think abstractly increases with age, so it is important to put children’s feelings and fears into perspective while being developmentally appropriate. Grace Lynch writing for PBS parents offers tips that include keeping a routine and taking a news break. Another key tip is to answer children’s questions but only with necessary information. As adults we are experiencing our own emotional reaction to this most recent tragedy, and it is hard to stay focused. While we have our own emotional thoughts to process and share, we must also be careful to be mindful of sharing with children what is age appropriate when responding to their questions, emotional needs, and cognitive abilities. Both articles suggest parents focus on the positive and maintain a regular schedule. And finally, Lynch says, “If those symptoms last for more than a week or two, ask your child’s teachers if they are observing the same thing and consult your school psychologist or pediatrician.”
Teachers are on the front lines of this crisis. They not only have to ensure that their students are learning but are now tasked with ensuring their students are safe and feel safe in their classrooms. Teachers have always been responsible for their students’ intellectual and emotional well-being, but this is important now more than ever. The ADL offers 11 Ways Schools Can Help Students Feel Safe in Challenging Times. These steps will help students feel safe and welcome in a school. They counter bullying and bias, issues that I will discuss in more detail when I start the culturally responsive teaching blog series. The most urgent issue today is: how do we make our students feel safe against violence in schools?
The National Association of School Psychologists also offers a list for schools in its School Violence Prevention: Briefs and Tips, which includes 19 sourced options to support schools in creating a violence-free environment. First and foremost is the need to create a safe, inclusive, and positive school environment. Schools should also have clear rules and expectations of student behavior, clear policies on handling student misbehavior, and a clear plan on dealing with a crisis. The plan needs to be practiced and learned by everyone in the building. While it may seem horrifying that schools need to have a plan in place for an active shooter drill, such a plan is both necessary and empowering.
Finally, we need to address the mental health needs of our teachers. Emily Minero writing for Edutopia.org reminds us that, “For teachers, who are directly exposed to a large number of young people with trauma in their work, a secondary type of trauma, known as vicarious trauma, is a big risk.” Teachers already have a stressful job, but it is essential to provide support to teachers as they deal with their own emotional needs if they are to successfully support their students’ emotional needs.
Tolerance.org offers advice to teachers in Jey Ehrenhalt’s article, “Showing up Strong for Yourself – and Your Students.” First, the article recognizes and addresses the stress and anxiety caused by mass shootings in the nation. It goes on to discuss the mental and emotional burden teachers must deal with both internally and when providing a healthy environment for their students. What can you do as a teacher? First move. Dance, jump, run around. “Movement stimulates neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, and shifts thought patterns that have become lodged in a groove,” writes Ehrenhalt. The article also suggests “shifting.” When you are feeling weighted down by stress or anxiety, instead focus your thoughts on your breathing, move from sitting to standing, somehow literally shift what you are doing and or thinking and refocus. Like students, teachers must find the opportunity to express their feelings and emotions. Discuss what you are feeling with friends, family, and colleagues. This will leave you in a better state of mind to listen to your students and help them to process their stress and anxiety. Finally, these articles remind teachers to connect. We are not alone in our feelings about school shootings, in our fears and anxiety. Connect with other educators or like-minded groups. Reach out to the shared global community of educators.
As an educator and as a mom, I am feeling scared, anxious, and powerless about the violence aimed at our schools, educators, and students. I’ve tried to take the advice from the articles that I have read, and one of the key pieces of advice that I see repeated is to act to do something. Empower yourself with action and activity.