As a teacher and now a superintendent, I have always loved the joy and excitement that a new school year brings. I still do, and always will. This year, though, I also have a heightened sense of concern and empathy for our children given the anxiety and fear I believe so many of them are experiencing.
Imagine how a child or teenager feels seeing and hearing the news stories of shootings in Texas and Ohio and immigration raids in Mississippi this summer. As an adult, I am struggling to make sense of it all, and I cannot. So how can they?
When our students return to school this year, some may express their fears by acting out to gain attention, while others may retreat inward. I urge educators to ask ourselves what is motivating our students’ behavior. Take time to ask them how they are feeling and what they need to feel safe and successful at school. Encourage students to share their concerns and then listen with empathy. Reassure them that school is a safe place and help them understand their rights.
Additionally, those of us working in schools can provide support and resources to our families to create safety plans because emergencies can happen to anyone and preparation helps provide confidence and a sense of control.
We must also partner with families to provide students with a sense of normalcy during these turbulent times, recognizing that school is often a student’s second home. This is where routines matter mightily. Yes, we must acknowledge what students are feeling, but we must also remain focused on teaching them because that is what school is for. Our students need to know that this part of their life is a place of empathy and support, but also predictability and stability.
To be clear, this does not mean that we lower our standards for our students’ behavior and academic performance. Rather, it means we must empathize and teach simultaneously.
In doing so we will equip our students with the knowledge and skills to do better than we as a nation are doing today.
This is what gives me hope. This is the power and promise of public education.
Clarification: This column was corrected at 8:56 a.m, Sept. 4, to clarify the reference to incidents in the news that are affecting children.