No Ordinary Monday
Teachers, principals, and other school staff nationwide are thinking about what to do and what to say tomorrow when they and their students return to school in the wake of the horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. Here are suggestions from Responsive Classroom consultants and authors Mike Anderson, Caltha Crowe, Sarah Fillion, Babs Freeman-Loftis, Lynn Majewski, Kerry O’Grady, Margaret Berry Wilson, and Chip Wood:
Although you are dealing with your own grief and fears, when you are with students tomorrow and in the days to come, do your best to focus on the children and their needs. It’s daunting, but projecting an emotional front of calm and safety and not showing extreme grief, anger, or fear with students is one of the most effective things you can do to keep children from feeling anxious. Principals and other school leaders can support teachers and staff in this by checking in frequently, by providing space and time for counseling, and by supporting teachers’ efforts to take care of themselves and each other during this time.
Plan for a week of learning that emphasizes peace, inclusion, and community in a secure, predictable environment. Stick to familiar routines and schedules as much as you can. Set academic goals that will allow students to feel masterful and successful, safe and in control. Plan to do activities that you know your students enjoy. Read aloud books with kind and loving characters, whether fictional or real. Although nothing can undo Friday’s tragedy, we can help restore children’s belief in other humans by showing them the opposite—that people can be good, noble, and selfless.
If your class uses an arrival routine such as Morning Meeting, that familiar structure will be especially helpful now. Greeting each other, using an established, predictable format for sharing, doing a physical activity or singing together can all help affirm classroom community. Try to choose greetings and activities that foster a sense of peace and community, and consider using particular favorites of the children. Stick to the structure you’ve already established for meetings. As many educators did after 9/11, you might use Morning Meeting as a place to talk about the Sandy Hook tragedy with children, but don’t let discussion or sharing about it dominate or take over your meetings.
Make time at the end of the day to check in with the group. In classrooms, a routine such as Closing Circle gives teachers an opportunity to hear what the day has been like for students and to take a measure of what is on their minds. A brief check in for faculty and staff can also be helpful at times like this.
Here are some more specific ideas:
As a principal, I would want to bring my teachers together for a short meeting after school on Monday, just to get a pulse and to let people hear from each other about how hard the day felt to them . . . Schools will also undoubtedly be reviewing safety procedures and may be considering lock-down drills. Districts will make their own decisions about when and how to do these, but in this coming week, I think what is most essential is for principals to bring their staffs together to review procedures carefully so that everyone knows what to do, and for teachers to remind students that part of what keeps us safe is that we know what to do when there is an emergency. —Chip Wood
I’m thinking about times in my teaching career when the class has been faced with terrible times (after 9/11 in Connecticut when families at my school were affected, in Illinois when a school shooter entered an elementary school in our district, after the murder of a student’s parent). In such situations I’ve done my best to maintain that delicate balance between allowing children a safe place to honestly discuss their feelings, while also making sure that we aren’t dwelling on terrible things that the children have no control over, and maintaining an overall positive tone in our classroom while allowing children to express their sadness. —Caltha Crowe
In many ways, I would approach the day (and the whole week) with a “first six weeks of school” mentality, intentionally building in time for community-building throughout the day and choosing academic goals and tasks that feel safe, doable, and engaging for students. I know it will be hard, but teachers should try to spend time observing the whole class, checking in with students during work time, and staying with the class as much as possible, including prep periods. I hate saying that as I know teachers need to take care of themselves as well next week, but I think teachers’ presence next week will be especially comforting.
I also second Chip’s idea that principals should check in with teachers and be present for them, especially after that first day. I think teachers should do this for each other too, and especially for colleagues who might not have close friends or family. Teachers might also check in on their administrators, who often work alone and with little support from others. —Margaret Berry Wilson
Keep in mind that there are many parents who will not want their children, especially young children (K–3), to have to deal with this at all. It will be easy for well-meaning teachers to give too many details about what happened in CT to their class. As much as possible, I think teachers should help children deal with the information and emotions they’re struggling to absorb without adding new details and more information. Teachers should be really clear about their school’s policy about what to say, how much to say, and how to say it.
Also avoid language or play activities that even hint of violence: “I can’t wait until Christmas. The wait is killing me!” “You have a question? Fire away!” I remember realizing after the Columbine shooting that one of my favorite camp games, “Killer,” wasn’t appropriate for Morning Meeting with my fourth graders. (The game is pretty common . . . all children mix and mingle and shake hands. If you receive a double squeeze from someone, you wait three seconds and fall to the floor. The detective tries to identify who the killer is as quickly as possible.) I later came up with a variation in which a magician casts a sleeping spell by using a double-squeeze handshake. —Mike Anderson