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What Teachers Can Do in the Face of National Trauma

It was Nov. 24, 2014, right before Thanksgiving break. Some may remember that this was also the day after the grand jury came to a decision in the Michael Brown case. It was, too, around the time 12-year-old Tamir Rice lost his life at the hands of an officer in Cleveland, Ohio, where at the time I worked as a third-grade teacher. I went to school that day filled with emotions: anger, sadness, hopelessness; you name it, I felt it. What would I say to my students? I thought.

I tried to go about “business as usual,” starting with greeting my students as they walked in. Malcolm, an outgoing, brilliant kid with a bubbly personality, walked toward me, as he did every morning to do our special morning handshake. But that morning was different. He came slowly, unhappily down the hall. He said to me: “Man, Ms. Kobbah, who’s going to protect us now?”

I wasn’t sure what he knew, so I asked him to clarify what he meant. “Well, you told us that police officers were put in communities to protect people. My mom and I watched the news and heard about that little boy who was shot by the rec center right by my house.”

In that moment, I wondered what to do, specifically as a teacher. Should I leave this conversation for his parents or guardians to handle at home? Should he and I talk about it? What were other teachers doing? Was there even a school policy about this? Probably not.

As America continues to reel from an endless litany of tragedies—natural disasters, white supremacist rallies, shootings, sexual assault revelations—I’ve thought back to my days in the classroom, and what teachers can—and, truly, should—do for students in the face of trauma.

The answer, I think, lies in a willingness to be vulnerable in the classroom.

For one, it’s crucial for teachers to acknowledge that students arrive at school each day with their own lived experiences, opinions, and emotions. Students, moreover, are seeking far more than just academic content from their teachers. Research shows that as early as pre-K, 1 in 4 children have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. What could be deemed traumatic? The National Child Traumatic Stress Network explains that traumatic events can include a range of different experiences, including experiencing the death of someone else; witnessing domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse; and experiencing a robbery, shooting, beating, or some other personal conflict. Additionally, depending on a student’s particular background, that student may also be capable of experiencing historical trauma; this sort of trauma is often specifically associated with racial or ethnic groups that have faced historical marginalization.

How, then, can educators create a classroom space for students to heal from trauma? As teachers grapple with devastating news, they must remember that students are working to understand it, too. It’s OK for teachers to challenge the normative ideals of what a classroom teacher should do. It’s OK, as well, for them to model vulnerability, in whichever way is authentic to them.

During conversations with my students, for instance, we were able to be vulnerable with one another by sharing our emotions, and, at least in those moments, jettisoning our titles. My students shared stories of what they were exposed to once they left my classroom. And, I learned how important it was to take time to listen to those stories. In fact, we had an even stronger day, academically, whenever we acknowledged, affirmed, and supported those emotions.  

“Business as usual” doesn’t allow for vulnerability in the classroom; it doesn’t allow for a healing space—which was exactly what my students needed that day. Indeed, on some days, students may need healing spaces much more than they need an academic curriculum. As current events continue to unfold, whether a rally or a shooting or a natural disaster that displaces families, teachers ought to ask what their students need to feel safe—and ready to learn.

But let’s not forget: Identifying, and responding to, trauma isn’t easy, and teachers could use some assistance of their own—support and professional learning opportunities—on this front. As an educator, I often turned to key resources, like Facing History and Ourselves and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance, for guidance. These kinds of resources provide free, evidence-based classroom resources that have been shown to ratchet up empathy, engagement, and civic responsibility among young students. Some also provide full, rigorous lesson plans, film kits, and teaching strategies aimed at diversity, identity and justice—all for no cost. And for some of the youngest learners in the classroom, the creators of Sesame Street recently released a new video series that teaches coping strategies for children who experience trauma.

Strengthening professional development to incorporate trauma-informed training and equipping teachers with effective strategies and skills is also important. Principals, mental health counselors, and teachers must work together to create guidelines for addressing trauma in the classroom. Policymakers, meanwhile, ought to consider the need for, and how they might support, investing resources in trauma-informed professional learning opportunities.  

Especially in these times, ignoring the realities students experience is a disservice to their social, emotional, and academic development. Whether a school leader, teacher, or policymaker, we should make a habit of asking: What do students need to feel safe and ready to learn?

That day, in 2014, I had a decision to make: I could ignore Malcolm’s question, tell him to go eat breakfast, tell him that we’d talk about it later—knowing that later would never come. I could go throughout the day, business as usual—do a little reading, writing, and math. Or, I could embrace that uncomfortable moment, have a discussion that really matters, and give my students what they needed. At that moment, Malcolm needed a healing space. And he wasn’t the only one. We cried together that day. It was then that my students and I began to understand the true power of vulnerability. We grew in our understanding of one another; we were all teachers and learners.

*Student names have been changed to protect privacy.


Samantha Kobbah was an intern with the Education Policy program's Early and Elementary Education Initiative.