Healthy Classroom Conversations don't happen by accident.
Cultivate the tools and skills you need to make your classroom
a safe place for emotionally-charged conversations.
a safe place for emotionally-charged conversations.
The February 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida was the eighteenth school shooting of 2018. Many schools have active-shooter drills, but news of a real-life tragedy can make the possibility of a school shooting seem even more real and disturbing for students.
Some students might be very emotional, while others seem like they don't care. Just because students seem fine, does not mean they actually feel fine. Some students might cope by laughing, joking around, or exhibiting other inappropriate responses. In all cases, students look to their teachers for information, reassurance, and support.
What can teachers do in these circumstances?
1) Provide direct, accurate information. Students rely on teachers for information. Students have probably heard about the incident from the news, social media, classmates, or other adults. Be prepared to provide developmentally-appropriate facts about the incident. Younger students should receive simple, concise information while older students benefit from having the full picture. In both cases, it is beneficial to point out the positive ways people responded and provided help during the event.
2) Provide reassurance. All students deserve to feel safe in school. News of a school shooting can compromise their sense of safety. Remind students of your school's safety procedures, including drills for lockdowns, fires, and other sources of danger. Let your students know that the adults at school are doing their best to keep them safe while acknowledging that bad things can happen in our world.
3) Help children process their emotions. You can model sharing emotions by naming your own feelings (e.g. "I felt sad and scared when I heard this news.") When children share, you can help make sense of their experience by validating their feelings. (e.g. "I can tell you are very worried about this!) Attempting to change students' emotions by cheering them up can actually frustrate children. Practice active listening techniques with your students. Simply repeating what you hear them say and naming the emotions they are trying to express can help students of all ages make sense of their feelings.
4) Keep the conversation constructive. Especially among older students, conversations can devolve into angry political debates. If your goal is to help students process their feelings, feel reassured, and move forward in their day, a political debate is probably counterproductive. Political action and dialogue can be helpful for older students, but wait until the students' emotional needs are met and you can plan properly.
5) Identify helpful resources in the building. Remind students about adults who can provide support and assistance if they are distressed or distracted. And, let students know how to seek this help. Be specific! If students have not visited the school counseling office before, let them know where it is and your school's procedure for visiting. Do they need a pass? Does another adult need to escort them? Are you supposed to call ahead? If you have identified students who might need extra support, pass that information to an administrator or school counselor.
6) Collaborate with colleagues and other stakeholders. Other teachers, school counselors, school administrators, and staff members all play a key role in supporting students alongside parents and guardians. Parents in particular should know about how you have approached this dialog so that they have all of the information they need to continue to support their children at home.
7) Maintain your normal routine. After students have had a chance to process the news, proceed with your usual routine. It will help students return to a sense of normalcy and feel more comfortable.
8) Be prepared for more discussions. Processing an upsetting situation is not a linear event. Students might seem fine and then get upset again later. Listen to your students' verbal and nonverbal messages so that you can support them as needed.
Here are other resources on talking to children about upsetting events. Some of these are geared towards parents, but can also apply to teachers.
Helping Kids During Crisis, American School Counselor Association.
Mass Shooting in Las Vegas: How to Talk to Students, October 2017, NEA Today.
Tips for Talking to Children about the Shooting, December 2012, New York Times.
Teachers often assume that politics must be left at the schoolhouse door. Political topics often end up in your room anyway. If your school has a newspaper subscription that students access, politics could already be in your room. If students watch CNN 10 or another morning news program, politics are already in your room. If students are upset or worried about current events, politics are already in your room. If your students have come from another class where a political topic has come up, guess what? Politics are in your room. Politics are in your classroom if your own curriculum includes politically-oriented topics.
Even if you are still convinced your classroom is apolitical, ask yourself: Do you view schools as a place that helps develop an informed citizenry? It is hard to achieve that goal without teaching students to analyze and respond to political ideas.
Teachers who fear political discussions generally conflate politics with partisanship. Your classroom should not be partisan, nor should you promote a specific political candidate, platform, ideology or perspective. Many school districts have explicit policies prohibit teachers using their position in this way. Even the ACLU, a staunch defender of free speech, cautions against teachers promoting specific political views. It is unethical to go into a political discussion with the goal of convincing them of your viewpoint.
It is still possible-- and indeed important-- to be able to facilitate political conversations in your classroom whether they arise intentionally or through unanticipated student contributions. Political conversations do not need to be partisan. In fact, conversations about politics can equip students with valuable skills that will help them be stronger participants in their democracy. Diane Hess and Paula McAvoy authors of Politics in the Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education frame political discussions as a change to help students answer the question "How should we live together?"