Teaching After a Disaster

Peter Cusack, center, and Mel Bermudez walk their dogs Teague, left, and Molly along the Brooklyn waterfront beneath the New
Peter Cusack, center, and Mel Bermudez walk their dogs Teague, left, and Molly along the Brooklyn waterfront beneath the New York skyline as Hurricane Sandy advances on the city, Monday, Oct. 29, 2012. Hurricane Sandy continued on its path Monday, forcing the shutdown of mass transit, schools and financial markets, sending coastal residents fleeing, and threatening a dangerous mix of high winds and soaking rain.  (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

We have been out of school for a week now. The public school teachers had to report to work today in NYC -- that's 80,000 employees trying to weave their way to their school buildings amid a major lack of transportation, personal losses, and a lack of childcare of their own children. They are going to prepare for the students' arrival on Monday, and prepare they must.

Schools serve an important function after a disaster such as Hurricane Sandy; they provide a sense of normalcy amid chaos. As much as I have tried to embrace the slow life of this past week and the unexpected quality time with my own children, there was a definite feeling that something was amiss. Alexandra asked every day, "Are we going to school today?" and Nico erupted into crying yesterday for the guinea pig, Apple, at his preschool, with claims that he missed her. We had just crossed that indefinite line in which being back in school was the norm and the lazy days of summer had been left behind. This week as been disorienting for us, and we have suffered no losses from the hurricane. We were very lucky. Others were not.

I am missing my students. Like my own children and school, I felt my students and I had just hit our stride in the semester. The Friday before the storm, the 70 students in our House presented their mid-term project "Re-envisioning Times Square" to a panel of professors and community members. I watched hours of presentations, noting the progress they had made since September, noting the work we had to do before December, and noting the work we had ahead of us for the academic year. I was so proud of them, of us, and of our newly-opened community college. Not that those feelings have subsided at all, but the momentum I felt from that day one week ago has certainly lost some intensity.

Many times, I find myself thinking that teaching college is divorce from teaching high school, but it is not. I know that if I were teaching high school, I would be planning lessons for Monday that included time for the students to share, to write, to talk, to read, and to think critically about what just happened in our city. But, in thinking of my community college English classes, I found myself feeling this sense of urgency to return to the curriculum. We lost a week of teaching! We lost our assessment days! We need to get back on schedule! I need to redo my syllabus! These exclamatory statements crept into my mind around 6:00 a.m. this morning and prevented any sound sleep.

But my college students need to process Hurricane Sandy, too. The majority of them are only four months out of high school. In terms of adolescent development, they are very much still adolescents. They will be angry, confused, grieving, and have questions just like my high school students would have had. They will need a safe space to express themselves. And while I have an ball of angst growing in my chest about the pacing of our semester and our curriculum, the mental health and overall well being of my students social and emotional stability is important, too. They live all over the city in all five boroughs and will have all sorts of stories. I have been particularly worried about my one homeless student who sleeps on the Staten Island Ferry. Where has he been all week? He, too, lost his home like many others.

I am on the New York City Writing Project listserv, and a fellow Writing Project teacher Paul Alison posted a helpful document from the U.S. Department of Education for teachers going back into the classroom after disaster. Its title is "Psychological First AID (PFA) for Students and Teachers: Listen, Protect, Connect--Model & Teach"(Department of Education, 2008). It is 11 pages, and it breaks down the steps for teachers to follow upon returning to the classroom after a disaster:

Step 1: Listen
Teachers or adult school staff should provide students with an opportunity to share their experiences and express feelings of worry, anxiety, fear or other concerns about their safety.

Step 2: Protect
Adults should try to reestablish students' feelings of both physical and emotional safety. They can honestly inform students about events surrounding the crisis, such as sharing with them information about what is being done in the community and school to keep everyone safe.

Step 3: Connect Help students reestablish their normal social relationships and stay connected to others in order to experience social support. Restoring and building connections promotes stability, recovery and predictability in students' lives. A student's classroom and school is a safe place to begin restoring normalcy during a crisis or disaster.

Step 4: Model Calm and Optimistic Behavior
In times of crisis or disaster, children and adolescents watch adult reactions and receive cues on how to confront adversity. This step reminds adult staff in schools that they are role models. While teachers and other school personnel might also be affected and may not know exactly how they will navigate recovery, adults can acknowledge their distress but demonstrate a positive and optimistic approach and show students that constructive actions provide hope for the future.

Step 5: Teach
During the coping process, it is important to help students understand the range of normal stress reactions. School counselors, nurses, psychologists or social workers can take on this task. These professionals can teach students, staff, parents or guardians, and volunteers about common reactions to the specific event or disaster, such as the fact that children and youths may have more difficulty with learning after the specific event.

I would like to add that for those of us who work in schools that lack a large (or any!) support staff, I feel that teachers/professors need to take on this role of Step 5. Use writing and texts to discuss reactions to disaster, grieving, and recovery. Weave it into the curriculum so that it doesn't seem like a lesson to "fix" the current issues (impossible) but an addition to your current course of study. I'm going to be brainstorming how to do this in the coming days although I am not sure when we will have classes again. Our campus at Bryant Park is without electricity or water, and given that I haven't heard from any of my students via email, I am guessing that many of them are without power, too. I don't even know how I will teach my afternoon classes, as the only way I get from my work to my own children in time to pick them up at 6:00 p.m. is via the express train from Manhattan to Brooklyn that is no longer running. But I hope and believe it will all work itself out.

For those of us who teach students from disenfranchised backgrounds, we know they are resilient beyond what we could ever imagine being at their age, but we still need to give them the space to process these events and what it means to them, their families, their communities, and their city. We will all be better for it. And, quite honestly, maybe we could use a little processing time ourselves.