On January 6, 2021 I sat in front of my TV in awe and fear as I watched a crowd of mostly white men storm the Capitol building, waving Confederate flags and proclaiming victory over our government. As a gay man of color with two black children, I was scared. My mind then quickly turned to my professional role as director of equity and student support for Lexington Public Schools, just outside of Boston. My position provides support for historically marginalized and silenced groups in our schools, and I knew the news from Washington could be particularly traumatic for certain populations, including our students, staff, and families of color. How could we help our staff create safe spaces to deal with all of this the next morning?
I am fortunate to work with a great group of school leaders, many of whom gave up everything to join me in creating clear messages for our staff, which build on our previous work to strengthen their capacity to engage. difficult conversations with students. I often tell our employees that they may not feel comfortable, but they are ready to have these conversations even with our youngest students.
Working with administrators across the district, we have created the following boards for our staff. As we shared the suggestions more broadly, we quickly understood the value of these points for parents who wanted to engage in these conversations with their children, and the heads of departments thought brilliantly about how to do this. adapt these ideas to deal with events. with their staff.
Name what happened
Particularly with older students, state explicitly how what happened differs from peaceful protests and the exercise of freedom of expression. These events were violent and illegal, and compared to how other protests have been handled historically, they were clearly rooted in a system of racism and white supremacy. While some in our community may agree with the ideology of those who instigated, supported and embraced violence, now is not the time to discuss “both sides”. There is only good and bad. Acknowledge that this was a traumatic event and challenge those who think otherwise to think about why they feel that way.
Follow the example of your students
Especially with young children, start with questions such as “Has anyone heard of the news?” or “What do you know about what happened in Washington, DC?” before clarifying the misinformation. If students seem eager to proceed, give them space to do so if you feel ready. If they seem eager to focus on other topics, name them (“It doesn’t seem like a lot of you want to discuss this…”), then move on. Since emotions are probably still raw at this point, make sure that students who differ from their peers have another option, such as allowing someone who wants to discuss the topic further to meet with a counselor or a child who does not. does not want to participate in a discussion class the possibility of opting out (“For those of you who for whatever reason don’t feel ready to have this conversation now, here are your options…”).
Be aware of your own reactions to events
Staff and other adults should pay close attention to our own reactions to events. Children of all ages are inspired by the adults around them. Staff members should seek support for themselves if necessary. There is no shame in asking for help from a colleague.
Make time and space
It is appropriate and necessary to create time and space to deal with disturbing events. When starting conversations with students, it can be helpful to establish certain parameters, reminding everyone of previously set standards for difficult conversations, stating clear expectations on how to disengage when exceeded, and previewing. content (“We will now talk about national events, then move on to the day. We will be back at the end of the day to check you in if anyone needs it. If you need more assistance during during the day, we’re here to help. ”) If you don’t feel ready to lead a conversation about these events, you still need to deal with them in some way. Silence is not an act of neutrality; it may negate the validity of children’s feelings. Consider using language like, “Yesterday’s news was really hard to watch, and I still deal with it myself. I don’t feel ready to have this conversation yet, but if you are, here’s where you can go… ”Remember you can say“ I don’t know ”. Sometimes what students need most is to know that you are listening and that you care about them.
Think of the heart, not the head
Sometimes a cerebral and logical discussion of a traumatic event can be counterproductive, especially if it occurs too soon after the event. It may be helpful to explicitly remind those who take a more academic rhetorical stance that, for some, it is not possible to avoid questioning emotions like fear and grief when discussing these events.
Help identify coping strategies
Give students concrete ideas for working on their thoughts and emotions and time to do them, such as talking to a trusted adult, taking a break from the news and social media, or even going for a walk, drawing or playing a game Help them come to terms with the non-closure, both because the event is evolving hourly and because it is representative of the larger systems of oppression that have operated in our country for generations.
Johnny Cole is Director of Equity and Student Support at Lexington Public Schools and a proud member of an interracial family, lovingly built with her husband and their two adopted children. Before becoming an administrator, he spent over a dozen years as a high school English teacher.