Mimio Educator

Talking With Students About Tragedies: A Principal's Perspective 

Posted by Kelly Bielefeld on Wed, Apr 11, 2018

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Like most people who were alive on September 11, 2001, I remember the day very vividly. I was a 23-year-old first-year teacher at a high school in Kansas. The events of the day were indescribable, devastating, and extremely emotional. I wasn’t sure if watching the footage with my class was appropriate, but that’s what I did—along with most of the teachers in the building.

I learned a lot that week about myself, my students, and my country. That evening, I printed off a few articles from Slate for my students to read in class the next day. I thought that reading about the events and processing the information would be helpful for the students. As a class, we read the articles and discussed the different perspectives that were shared.

The following morning, my principal was at my door to greet me. He wanted a copy of what I had shared with the students. A parent called to complain that I “wasn’t supporting the president” with what I had let the kids read. In one of the articles, the author wished for a “more experienced president” since George W. Bush had only been in office for about nine months at the time. It wasn’t “anti-president” at all—the principal was supportive and nothing else resulted from it.

Finding the Right Way to Respond

I learned a lot from that week. I reflected about the event itself, and considered whether I should have shown the articles to the students in the first place. Should I have used the “teachable moment” to learn about the event and the lives it impacted? Should I have focused more on the event? Less on the event? 

I don’t know that I have the answers to any of these questions still today. What I do know are a few guidelines that I would share with teachers about how to handle these types of events going forward. It is a little different from a principal’s perspective, as I’m sure it was for my principal back in 2001. Keep in mind, this is not a psychologist or therapist speaking—this is not a primer on how to deal with grieving students. Instead, this is a guide for how to respond to emotionally and politically charged public events come up in the classroom. 

  1. Keep calm and steady: For individuals in heightened states of emotion, it can be hard to think clearly. Teachers and parents alike can become a little less rational when they are upset. When it comes to the public displays of violence that we have seen over the last few years, it is hard not to be upset and emotional. As a principal, I would advise teachers to try to stay as calm and rational as possible, even though this is a challenge. The best way I have found to do this is to process the information with someone prior to greeting the students. I have, at times, had a faculty meeting first thing in the morning. This isn’t because I have some profound wisdom—it’s because when we are able to process things together, it can help us to work through the emotion and stay calm later in the day.
  1. Think about how upsetting the events are for your age range: Events can be scary—sometimes teachers don't think much about the impact that these stories can have on their students. I know in some homes watching the news and staying up to date on current events is a common occurrence, but in other homes students are sheltered from this or don't have much knowledge. The teacher, and therefore the school, should ask itself what role they should play in communicating some of this to students. These situations can be extremely scary for students, especially the ones that involve schools. The piece of advice I would offer is to speak in general terms. Sometimes it's good to acknowledge that things happen, but you don't need to go into lots of specifics. There is really no need for students to know the number of people that were killed or the type of weapon that was used. Especially with younger students, these things are better left out. The teachers can simply state that something really sad happened.
  1. Kids sometimes have limited or even false information: Another issue that can come up is students bringing false information to school with them. Because we have a variety of news sources today, all sorts of different types of news can be shared with students. Sometimes this is politically motivated and some of it is just completely innocent. Nonetheless, these rumors spread rapidly within both young and older students. I remember personally finding out about the Oklahoma City bombing right after lunch my junior year of high school. Students were talking about it and that was the source of my information. My advice as a principal is to go back to step one, but offer general advice and stick with just the facts. I would not allow students to share what they know—this can become a storytime of sorts, and the fake stories can be more upsetting for everyone. 

Here is the final, simplified step-by-step list I would offer teachers for helping when large, public tragedies happen:

  • Step 1: Address the situation as a class and do it early in the day.

  • Step 2: Speak in general terms, stick to the facts, and don't go into much detail.

  • Step 3: Communicate with parents that the conversation was had and that they need to continue to talk with their kids when they get home.

  • Step 4: Reassure your students that they are safe with you and you will do everything you can to keep them safe. It is also important to make sure they know how rare these events are, and even though they're scary and we see lots of unsettling pictures and videos, the truth of the matter is this is very unlikely to happen to them while they are in school.

These steps may not be the perfect recipe for supporting students emotionally during these events, but they may help a teacher like me, who 17 years ago was just trying my best to make sense of what happened. 

If you found this post helpful, check out some of my other posts on topics ranging from motivating staff and inspiring your school to dealing with the challenges that often face us as administrators and teachers. Want to get these posts delivered right to you inbox? Be sure to subscribe to the Educator blog today.

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