Teaching on the day after a crisis

This morning, thousands of teachers are walking into classrooms across the country, trying to show up for their students after a national crisis. A crisis within a crisis, really, as that “walk into the classroom” might look like logging onto Zoom. How do we show up for our kids when we feel shattered, too? How can we help others feel safe when we feel unsafe?

In my teaching career, there have been so many “mornings after the crisis.” National tragedies and personal ones, deaths of my students’ family members and friends, images on the news of horror far away or close to home. I want to share some of what I’ve learned, from a trauma-informed perspective, but let me first say this: there is no “right way” to do this. What I’m offering here, I’m offering with love and solidarity for teachers, and I hope you can use it. Don’t miss my last paragraph, but spoiler alert: you are enough, and just showing up for your kids is enough.

Check in with yourself.

How are you feeling? What support have you gotten around your own emotional response to the crisis? Slow down. This often feels impossible, especially since crises tend to make everything feel like an emergency. Take a moment to unpack the urgency you may be feeling. What is likely urgent: helping your students feel safe and supported. What is likely not urgent: unpacking the complex dynamics that led to the crisis. For example, the day after a terrorist attack, it might feel urgent to help students understand the global forces that lead to terrorism, or the danger of jinoistic responses. Those things are absolutely important, but they were important long before the crisis and they will remain important. What is actually urgent is showing up for your students with care.

Key actions:
  • Disconnect from the news and social media and take a moment to journal, talk to a friend, or move your body. Step away from information about the crisis so you can notice how you feel.
  • Collaborate with others. It’s a manifestation of savior mentality when we try to take on everything ourselves. Check in with your coworkers, school counselors, and others to plan for the day. 
  • Reach out to your own support networks. The day after a crisis may be a sprint, but this is just one day in the marathon of teaching. Don’t be afraid to let others know you need support.

Don’t rush to intellectualize.

The day after a student’s parent dies would be an inappropriate time to start a unit on death and dying customs in different cultures. You probably already know that, but sometimes we jump to do that same intellectualizing of current events without slowing down to consider their emotional impact. If you started a debate unit on gun control the day after a high profile school shooting, for example, you could be doing harm by forcing students to engage in academic activities about an event they haven’t processed emotionally yet. Put more simply, if students feel unsafe, anxious, or unsettled, they need to process and connect, not to watch a TED talk and write a position paper.

Key actions:
  • If your mind is spinning with curricular connections, write them down! These will be helpful later on, so capture your thinking, but then set it aside.
  • Resist directives to stick to your scripted curriculum or ignore what has happened. Your students are watching you to learn whether it’s okay to be human, or whether they must shove down their emotions to “do school.” 

Validate and offer choices for support.

When we see young people hurting and scared, we can feel the need to fix their emotions or offer solutions. Most of the time when people are hurting, they simply need to be witnessed. This video on supporting a grieving friend offers some helpful language around acknowledgement. Additionally, some students may not want to process in public, or may want to continue their routine for the day, or use distraction as a coping mechanism. Offer choices so that students can reflect on what they need and feel supported in getting those needs met. 

Key actions:
  • Jane Martin offers these choices to her students. This is a great way to center student autonomy after a crisis. 
  • Create space but put boundaries around it. It can be extremely overwhelming for students to go to school and talk about a crisis non-stop for the entire day, and this is likely not helpful. Routines can be very grounding. One way to put boundaries around processing time: “We’re going to do ten minutes of quiet drawing, reading, or writing. You can choose to respond to the prompt on the board or do your own thing. Then we’ll have ten minutes of open conversation time. At the end of that, each of you will be able to choose: work on our ongoing class project, take some additional quiet reflection time, or join the processing group that’s in the library this block.” Time limits and choices can help create a predictability to the day, and give both you and your students a break.

Model not-knowing.

Our role in the classroom may be “teacher,” but that isn’t the same as “all-knowing being.” Especially after a crisis, in which there are usually many unknowns that aren’t resolved for days, weeks, or months. Position yourself alongside your students as a questioner, rather than positioning yourself as an arbiter or sage. One way to do this is generating questions together, using a structure like the question formulation technique or simple prompts like Tricia Ebarvia suggests: “ 1) What I know, 2) What I think I know, & 3) What I want to know.” With the generated questions, assess what needs to be answered now and what can be set aside for another day. 

  • Questions about facts or misinformation on the crisis can be answered by looking at trustworthy sources together, modeling for students how to find reliable information and investigating rumors. 
  • Questions about resources or mental health needs should be answered by connecting students to resources and validating. 
  • With more complex questions, you can set them aside with a commitment to revisit: “this is such a great question and I am looking forward to exploring it. I don’t know about all of you, but I find it hard to think about big ideas when I’m still feeling anxious. I’m going to look at these questions in a couple of days and plan for how we can explore them as a class. If any of you would like to help me plan, let me know.”   

Be gentle with yourself

Finally, please remember that you are enough. There is immense pressure on educators to “get it right” when talking about hard topics. The moments after a crisis can feel like a fleeting opportunity, an open door through which you have to run at full speed. In reality, there is no room on the other side of that door containing perfect clarity, safety, or peace. Crisis and trauma fundamentally shift our relationship to the world, and unpacking that can take a lifetime. Just showing up for your students on day 1 is enough. Just holding space for them and letting them know you care is enough. You are enough. 

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