Getting Back to Normal: Teachers, Students, and Trauma

This Tuesday morning was nothing out of the ordinary. It was beautiful out; there was not a cloud in the sky and my family went about their daily routine normally. My older brother and dad got dressed for school and work as my mother got my younger brother and I ready to spend the day with our babysitter. However, Austin will soon be dismissed early from school, the news will unusually be playing on my father’s work television and radio, and my mother will need to walk over the 59th Street Bridge to get home. It was September 11, 2001: a day that changed America. No one saw it coming; many lives were taken and many people were negatively affected by these terrorist attacks. As a result, some feared planes and flights, some became triggered by the sirens of ambulances and firetrucks. Coping with trauma is hard enough. Imagine being a young child unable to understand her feelings. Imagine being a young student in a school a few blocks away from where the planes crashed into the Twin Towers.

newspaper front page from September 12, 2001

Traumatized children may be incapable of putting their experience into words and/or asking for help; they may become “irritable, clingy, aggressive, and withdrawn” (Berson 74). Teachers of such students can do a lot to help them recover. Firstly, a teacher needs to be “flexible in responding to students’ questions” and “accepting of the range of emotional responses” (Berson 75). He cannot be quick to judge or expect everyone to react in the same way; he must be prepared to handle different situations. Teachers can also structure their classes so that it is “comforting and responsive to their students’ needs”, set aside time “to check on [their] feelings”, “guide them in identifying their reactions”, and “assist them in developing constructive coping skills” (Berson 74). Teachers control what happens during the eight hour school day. They have enough freedom to create new lesson plans that would be age appropriate for whomever is being taught. Discussing the events of, for example, September 11, 2001 during this time can help students put their feelings of fear and/ or confusion into words and teach them that it is okay and not taboo to talk about such events. Teachers can answer any questions, explain everything using simpler terms, and distinguish facts from rumors. Some may periodically check on each student personally to make sure progress is being made. Teachers can teach relaxation techniques that can be used when someone in class is feeling anxious or panicked. The goal of such educators is for their children to be able to live a normal life where they feel safe and grow up healthy.

No two cars break down in the same way and so every repair job Willie has had and will have are different. Similarly, no two children are affected by trauma in the same way. There is no way to predict how a car will break down or how a child will react to living through something like September 11, 2001. The author of Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World says, “there are contingencies and anomalies that can’t be anticipated by computer programs or instruction manuals” (Spelman 10). Teachers know that each student is a special case and therefore, they must be approached and will recover in different ways. There will be students who will need more help than others. Some may not talk at first while others may have been barely affected. A few may need counseling every week. No one can see the future and plan how to handle each child and so teachers must be prepared. There are so many professions, outside of a mechanic and teacher, without a “golden rule” such as surgeons, lawyers, and CEOs. With billions of cases of repair, it is not surprising that there is no such thing as a go-to solution.

Joel Cruz, 8 years old. Untitled. 11 x 8.5'’

Forever After: New York City Teachers on 9/11 is a book of first hand accounts. One was written by Patricia Lent, a teacher at an elementary school located a few blocks north of the World Trade Center. She played a big role in helping her students move forward from the terrorists attacks on September 11, 2001. Lent provided many distractions for her class as she “concluded that they needed some relief from the 9/11 images on the news in their heads” (Grolnick 10). Her husband was working on the Broadway show Music Man and so she first took them to see that. One mother said “That was the first time I’ve seen my daughter laugh since all this happened.” She also spent more time than usual on handwriting and cursive. They played a lot of math games because “they already knew the rules, the games were engaging, and they needed to play together” (Grolnick 13). As the students moved schools, many things were unfamiliar to them such as their new classroom, their new classmates, and their new commute to school. It is common to find comfort in familiar things so Lent helped her kids adapt to their new surroundings. She wanted “to model how to linger while reading” but her class sped through Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little as “story time was so comforting” (Grolnick 13). She also brought her students to a rehearsal at the Merce Cunningham Studio, where she used to dance. Lent wrote, “they needed opportunities to experience and think about something else at least some of the time” (Grolnick 10). No matter where her students went, there were constant reminders of the disaster; whether it be newspaper articles or conversation of pedestrians passing, their brain needed a break from all the negativity. She gave her students as many new things to think about. Lent did not only distract her class but also spent a good amount of time discussing the events of September 11, 2001. She led a conversation on whether or not to count 9/11 as a school day and the reasoning for each side. It is not healthy to bottle up emotions and so recounting and accepting the tragic events helped her students. She asked her class “What are you doing to get back to normal?” Making a list of actions that can be done gives students hope and tells them that it is possible to move forward; this goal is not unattainable. Many pictures were drawn and many pieces of literature were written; this exercise helps put the child’s feelings into thoughts which in turn will help him recover.

Joanne Raptis, 7 years old. Untitled. 8.5 x 11'’

Teachers act in loco parentis, a Latin term for “in the place of a parent” referring to the legal responsibility of some person to perform some of the functions of a parent (LII). In Repair, the household as a repair shop is described as “it’s where [people a]re to receive the daily dose of repair and restoration necessary for them to keep on going, physically, mentally, emotionally, to keep functioning as social animals” (Spelman 32). And so, this responsibility expands further than just at home. Teachers need to help traumatized children emotionally and that is what they do. Repairing the broken child does not end with the parents but continues as soon as the school day starts. “When emotions become overwhelming or are difficult to identify, some children may complain of headaches and other ailments” and so being emotionally damaged may lead to a less than perfect mentality and physicality (Berson 74). Educators want their students to be able to function in society successfully in the same way parents want this for their children.

One way teachers help their students deal with trauma is through their lesson plans.

However, there are a few complications and problems that arise as teachers help their students who are coping with trauma. “Time is needed to heal and to allow behaviors that intensified to diminish” and so teachers can only do so much (Berson 74). No matter how many distractions they provide, no matter how they redesign their lesson plans, and no matter how often they let their students draw, talk, and write about their feelings, enough time is necessary in healing. Teachers, themselves, may also be traumatized. Students aren’t the only ones affected by such an event and so “some teachers may still be processing their own concerns and be less available to the child to assist them with their actions” (Berson 75). How successful will a traumatized teacher be at helping her traumatized students? When you’re little, you picture those older than you as perfect human beings who know everything and make no mistakes. Yet, teachers are just that: human beings. Human beings who make mistakes, who are not perfect, and who sometimes have trouble dealing with strong emotions. When studying education in school, it is uncommon for future teachers to learn how to care for traumatized children and so they “need support to develop the skills required to attend to children’s specialized needs and to replenish their own resources for coping” (Berson 75). As an elementary education major, I learn how to teach students with special needs in “Introduction to Exceptional Students” but there is no class where I learn how to teach students coping with trauma in my list of required courses. Both students with special needs and those who are traumatized are similar in that they must both be taught in a certain way. Learning how to handle students coping with trauma after such events sounds hectic as everything is no longer normal. Teachers’ lesson plans are out the window and they must now come up with new ideas on how to spend their class time. They also may be dealing with their own trauma and must brainstorm ways on getting things back to normal. Acting as if everything is okay so your students are not worried does not sound like an easy task.

The aftermath of a disaster and the breaking of a law is similar in the sense that everything, both physically and emotionally, is in shambles. Restorative justice is quoted as “based on a set of values that promotes healing, repairing harm, caring, and rebuilding relationships among the victim, and offender, and the community” in Repair (Spelman 52). It is impossible for Patricia Lent to get her school community back to the state it was on September 10, 2001, no matter how hard she tries. Although, her school ends up in their original building after relocating two times, one of her female students said, “It doesn’t look anything like our classroom. It doesn’t feel good to me” (Grolnick 23). Everyone’s goal was to go back to normal but I don’t think this goal is truly attainable. Instead, a new normal must be created. Something as impactful at 9/11 cannot be forgotten; people cannot just act like it never happened. Unlike Spelman, restoring the community will not solve all the problems.

Adults (i.e. parents and teachers) help young children cope with trauma.

In Repair, human survivors are compared to ruins; it says, “there is no pleasure or even the thin gruel of instruction in these ruins of memory, which continue to be the source of anguish over the inability to recover what one has lost, of humiliation over the sense of confusion and incompetence the memories reignite” (Spelman 116). Patricia Lent’s students are technically not survivors as there were not in the Twin Towers during the plane crashes but September 11, 2001 did dampen their way of life. Ruins are respected because they show how people used to live and how far human society has come. Human survivors are people who have most likely dealt with trauma and are still fighting to be able to fully be re-included into society. In Lent’s account, she shares pictures of her students’ drawings and even pieces of writing they have put created. When researching, I found a book titled The Day Our World Changed: Children’s Art of 9/11 which is also composed of students’ artwork and literary contributions. Humans are still obsessed with knowing how people are affected by awful events. There is this fascination with the effect of unthinkable events on humans whether that be how they act or think or behave. I do not believe children should be put on display like this. Yes, much can be learned from their actions after experiencing such an awful event but I think they are most vulnerable in this state. Everything around them has changed and so they are not acting like themselves but expressing their feelings through art can help them recover.

Young children have a lot of difficulty coping with trauma as they are not as mentally developed as adults. Teachers, who they spend a large amount of time with, have an important role in their recovering. They are capable of doing many things that will help them move forward with their lives. Unfortunately, there are students who attended school by Ground Zero and even some who watched the planes crash into the World Trade Center. Thankfully, they are not alone on their road to recovery; their guardians and teachers are there to repair them.

But what about the students who didn’t have trauma because they don’t remember the events or were born after September 11, 2001? I was only three years old on that day but I have memories of observing a moment of silence at anniversary time in school. There has been an increased inclusion of 9/11 as a historical event in schools curricula. There are countless websites on teaching September 11 (i.e. National September 11 Memorial & Museum, Scholastic, United States Department of Education, and PBS). Pictures, videos, and lesson plans are provided so teachers know exactly how to address such a sensitive topic. Cheryl Duckworth, a professor at Nova Southeastern University, said “If we don’t address September 11 in all its complexity, stereotypes and misinformation will continue on both sides” (Eric Westervelt). This year marks the first time high school freshmen were not alive for 9/11/01. One way the world is moving forward is by educating everyone about that tragic day.

Acknowledgments

I would first like to thank my group members — Olivia, Jillian, and Chad — for their constructive but helpful feedback on multiple drafts. You told me what did and didn’t work and where I could expand my ideas. I would also like to thank my graduate teaching assistant, Frank Desiderio, for being there to clarify any confusion and providing suggestions to make my piece stronger. A special thanks goes to my English professor, Joseph Harris, who spent time reading my essay and was not afraid of telling it how it is. I am a better writer because he does not deem it necessary to sugarcoat anything. Lastly, I would like to thank my mom for always being a call away. I know I can count on you for calming me down when stressed. Thank you for believing in me.

Works Cited

Berson, Ilene R., and Michael J. Berson. “The Trauma of Terrorism: Helping Children Cope. (Teaching about Tragedy)(Cover Story).Social Education 65.6 (2001): 341. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web.

Berson, Michael J., and Ilene R. Berson. “September 11: Children’s Responses to Trauma.Kappa Delta Pi Record 38.2 (2002): 73–76. Taylor and Francis Online. Web.

Goodman, Robin F., Ph.D., Andrea Henderson Fahnestock, and Debbie Almontaser. The Day Our World Changed: Children’s Art of 9/11. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002. Print.

Grolnick, Maureen, ed. Forever After: New York City Teachers on 9/11. New York: Teachers College, Columbia U, 2006. Print.

In Loco Parentis.LII / Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School, 1992. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.

Silverio, Jeogelia, and Aries Abobo. “Recall of September 11, 2001.” Telephone interview. 23 Oct. 2016.

Spelman, Elizabeth V. Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World. Boston: Beacon, 2002. Print.

Westervelt, Eric. “Teaching Sept. 11 To Students Who Were Born After The Attacks Happened.NPR. NPR, 10 Sept. 2016. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.