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The One Thing Schools Shouldn't Do When Tragedy Strikes: Remain Silent


When tragedy strikes our nation - and there's no doubt it strikes too often - schools often scramble to determine if and how to respond. As the whole country works to understand the unfathomable tragedy in Las Vegas, schools should consider the importance of opening dialogue and providing students with the time and space to process and discuss what happened. The worst thing we could do for our students is to remain silent and pretend as if nothing occurred.

Why do we sometimes avoid discussing these difficult topics?

Sometimes, we are afraid we will upset kids. We think about their innocence and we want to protect them from the world's ugly. That's a good and understandable perspective, and it sometimes leads us to avoid or talk around issues.

We have too much to cover. Are you kidding? There is already not enough time in the day, how are we to sufficiently take on such sensitive matters when there's a curriculum map that needs to be followed, standards that need to be covered, and textbooks that need to be gotten through? It's true. The demands on teachers are many.

We are teachers, not social workers. There are social and mental health professionals better equipped to handle this. Please let me do my job, which is to teach.

Why should teachers discuss tragedies with their students?

If you don't, the playground will. Like with other sensitive topics, if you don't discuss it in class with an adult (you) present, trust that it will be discussed on the playground under the watchful eye of the oldest kid there (even if that person is the 3rd grader whose first to turn nine). It's up to us to lead these conversations.

Kids need time and space to process. Ideally, schools and classrooms have class meeting, morning meeting, advisory, restorative circles, or some other ritual in place where these types of discussions could occur. When I taught 3rd grade and the tragedy at Columbine occurred, I was thankful that my daily class meeting was in place - it provided us with the protocols and social skills we needed to have difficult, whole group conversations. It was cathartic, and it gave me the space to remind my students, "you are safe here with me and each other."

Kids need to feel empowered. Whether they are writing condolence cards, launching a letter-writing campaign, making artwork to express their feelings, or reflecting quietly in their own journals, kids feel less helpless about the world around them when they have an opportunity to react and express and create. Please give them that space.

Finally, to avoid difficult conversations and remain silent when egregious acts of violence occur is to normalize them. This is not normal. Our students cannot grow up thinking this is the normal and acceptable way for adults and societies to be in the world. We'll need their leadership as they mature, and we'll need them to help us solve the problems our generation has made for them.

So please, if you shoulder the privilege and challenge of teaching our kids, please be bold and take on these difficult conversations so that hopefully - one day - we could stop having them. To all the teachers out there who are bravely taking on the many difficult conversations our country is asking you to have, please know there are millions of us who are grateful for your courage, and we thank you.


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