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‘What Is a Teacher to Do?’: Returning to the Classroom After a Tragedy (Opinion)

At the start of this school year, I sat down to write the first draft of this essay on the night before returning to school following a shooting on my university campus. I started to write about the active shooter that terrorized our University of North Carolina community. About my first-semester freshmen sheltering in place just one week on campus. But, most of all, I started to write about what we can do as teachers in these moments.

While I am writing as a teacher at a university, I am united with teachers of all grade levels, including teachers in K-12 schools who find themselves sheltering alongside their students, wondering at the violence of our world.

On Aug. 28, every school in my town was on lockdown, after an active shooter on the University of North Carolina campus killed a beloved teacher and faculty member, Professor Zijie Yan. For those in our public schools, it was the very first day of school. For those on our university campus, it was the second week of classes.

We teachers were hurting along with those students, even as we drew on our training and ethical responsibilities to lean into our professional expertise. There are real limits to what we can do.

Teaching is, certainly, an answer. But what really is the question?

Perhaps it is: How can we hate each other so much?

How can we tolerate the unending killing and violence that punctuates our school spaces?

How will we ever—will we ever?—make good on the promises to our children of schools where safety, care, and imagination are the norm?

What is a teacher to do?

We have been through so many other collective traumas in our schools and in our sacred spaces of learning. These tragedies come, again and again, like waves. Unabated. Catastrophic and traumatic events follow us into and permeate our schools and universities.

What I offer below builds on my collaborative work, with Debi Khasnabis and Addison Duane, on systemically trauma-informed practice. It derives from the work of education researcher Deborah Loewenberg Ball, who has illuminated the power of teaching, and from my work with young people and thier communities, and the ways that they forever grace each other with steadiness and love. Each of these principles is meant to intertwine with the many ways that teaching is powerful: in its relational and transgressive ways, in its discipline, and in its search for knowledge and betterment.

1. Learning and teaching are powerful.

After the active-shooter event on our campus, I returned to the classroom just as many teachers have returned to their classrooms after a tragedy. As many will again. In returning, I focused on these truths: We are so very lucky to work as learners and scholars, seeking to make sense of the world. We study and teach about things that are of use in the everyday and especially on days like the one immediately following a tragedy.

2. Connections between students, teachers, and subject matter are powerful.

This means that, as a teacher, I needed to work to bring grace and connection into the classroom: connections between my students, between me and my students, and between my students and what we would learn together this semester.

When I returned to the classroom after the event, I shared with students what I hoped to do in class on the first day back and asked for feedback and thoughts. I shared with my students what we would do the next day and how I would show up. I also named the great range of ways that they can show up. I promised to make space for whatever is best for them. In these actions, I sought to maintain their trust by making good on these promises in class, especially at a time when a sense of security had been violently disrupted.

3. Clarity and shared sense-making in the face of the unknown are powerful.

These tragedies divide and isolate us. They foster fear, they break trust. They are anathema to the construction of communities of learners that sense-make together. But teaching is relational work, and we can lean into those parts of our teaching practice.

Thus, before our first class back after the shooting, I reached out individually and to the whole class. I named the shared tragedy and explained the structure of the following day’s class in hopes that I could make the reentry one that is less unknown. I sought to be explicit about what we’d be doing in class, when we’d do it, and why. And I built in genuine opportunities to co-construct those choices.

Rohan Tapiawala, a brilliant undergraduate student in that first class back, reassured me that teachers are human, too. Being human and naming fear and vulnerability does not mean that we abandon our professional ethical responsibility to teach.

So, for my undergraduate class, which studies race and racism in the context of U.S. public schools, on our first day back after this tragedy, we examined the first aspirational goals of American schooling. We reflected on how those ideals can still inspire us—students, scholars, educators, and policymakers—to make the necessary changes still needed of a day of palpable violence and division.

The topic of our first day back was surely different from the topics my colleagues were focusing on in their days back with kindergartners, 3rd graders, 8th graders, or 10th graders. And yet, the relational work of connecting and building a community of learners, of imagining and stretching toward new ways of thinking and knowing, are universal. The dangers we face are the same: how to trust, how to listen, how to hold space, how to move forward.

I lean into these steps, exhausted but with the hope that these steps will help us stretch together toward the new day—even when that new day is the first day after a collective trauma.

I insist, in the face of this and all the other tragedies, on hope. Hope to nurture a space of humanness. We will once again break bread and we will hold beauty in our hands.

If just for a moment.

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