"Care or Fear"

"Care or Fear"

There are no possible reasons to comprehend why an ‘Idiot with a gun in Newtown’* would go into a school and take lives. None.

In a comment on Angela Maiers post, There Is No Lesson Plan For Tragedy – Teachers YOU Know What To Do, I said,

I’ve seen a number of blog posts where educators are suggesting the topic of “Am I safe?” and “Could this happen here?” after the school shooting. That bothers me. I’m willing to bet that hundreds of thousands of students that might have felt safe in their school, and would not have questioned their own safety, will now think of that question and perhaps be more frightened than if that question did not get discussed.

Our world is full of graphic, horrific things that our media chains make sure that we are bombarded with. I wonder if ‘Idiot with a gun in Newtown’ would have chosen a school if other gunmen didn’t have their photos and names plastered across tv screens every time one of them decides to get on countless lists of people who have done similar deeds. I also wonder if we should be sharing ‘highlights’ about these same things in school… without specific resources and support networks in place to deal with how these things can affect students. Well intentioned teachers are not enough.

If a student were to share their fear of safety as a result of this event, I think we need to be reassuring and supportive, but let’s also be aware that students may not share our same fears, and let’s not project our own thoughts and fears into the innocent minds of our students that we care so much about.

Please note that I did not disagree with the post, I simply shared a concern for well-intentioned teachers that may not know how best to address such a tragedy in their classroom.

Both in a private Direct Message on Twitter, and also in a comment reply on Angela’s post, I had responses which suggest that my message wasn’t clear. After almost 7 years of blogging, I’ve come to realize a couple things about my writing style: I can tend to sound like am an opinionated know-it-all expert (false); and, I can tend to touch on topics which are sensitive but don’t necessarily do so with clarity and tact (true). I’m not an expert in the field of grief. I’m not sure how this tragedy has affected teachers or students beyond myself personal experiences. I invite other opinions. Here is my attempt to explain my comments above further…

We know the difference between saying,

“Don’t spill your milk” – (for which a child must create an understanding of what spilled milk looks like, and as a result might emulate that understanding which has been impressed upon them).

And saying,

“Be careful with your milk, as you walk carefully to the table” – (which instructs the child on what to do to be successful).

We often get results based on the pictures we fill our young impressionable  students’ heads with. Tomorrow, I fear that well-intentioned teachers could stir up thoughts of fear for personal safety in young minds, as concerns about Newtown are discussed. As I said, ‘I’m willing to bet that hundreds of thousands of students that might have felt safe in their school, and would not have questioned their own safety, will now think of that question (Am I safe?) and perhaps be more frightened than if that question did not get discussed.’

That might be an over-exaggeration. But it might not be. As I said in my second comment on Angela’s post:

I’m not a child psychologist. I don’t pretend to have all the answers… [but] I’m aware of a number of parents that have shielded their children from the brutally detailed media coverage. Do we not also have an obligation to those families not to bring fear into their schools?

I’m not a school psychologist but neither are the thousands of teachers who will be trying to make sense of this with children in their classrooms. Ignore the issue? No. Make it into a major discussion with every student whether they or their parents want you to? No.

Are we sure that when speaking in depth about such horrific events, that we are sharing a caring and supportive message to all our students, or could our act of speaking about these things actually invite our students to fear such a thing happening to them?

Here is some, (in my opinion very solid), advice that has been shared with respect to such an incident:

  •  Refrain from sharing images or video of the incident.
  • If discussions do take place within the classroom, we recommend they be limited to a brief sharing of facts.
  • There will understandably be some anxiety around this incident and staff and students may have some level of emotional impact from the news.
  • Please watch for any changes in behaviour, particularly among vulnerable students, and refer appropriately to your school counsellor as needed.

In this day and age of live coverage, instantaneous news, twitter and Facebook sharing, and over-analysis of every possible horrific event that happens around the globe, we would be fools to bury our heads in the sand and pretend like nothing happened. But how much of this do we need to bring into our schools? That’s a legitimate question I’m not sure I have an answer for, but I suspect a likely answer could be ‘less than we already do’.

Furthermore, while I want our schools to be safe, I don’t want to see prison-like entryways and I don’t think we need to have drills for students to deal with the potential of a local version of the ‘Idiot with a gun in Newtown’. Maybe I’m naive but I also don’t think we need to take our shoes off at every airport because one ‘Idiot with a bomb in his shoe’ tried to blow up a plane. We need safety protocols, we need to be smart and safe, we don’t need to make our schools look and feel like places that aren’t wonderful, or places where catastrophe is as likely to happen as learning.

There is another tragedy that I’ve avoided bringing up until now, but feel compelled to discuss because the topic is so intricately related. Our community lost Amanda Todd to suicide in October. Her story has now been shared around the world. Some teachers have shown her video, where she shared her story, in their classes. I don’t think I would.

The video shares a young girl’s very painful experience, from her own perspective… One students might connect with even more than we do… One that we have a hard time looking at objectively, and students will find even harder to look at objectively. A teacher/counsellor that I am friends with has mentioned how a significant number of students that she works with have spiralled into darker-than-normal places since Amanda’s death.

Another friend shared with me that, “Even though I don’t know Amanda’s family or friends, her suicide impacted my family, too. My son has just gone through a very dark year: two of his friends committed suicide, his girlfriend attempted suicide, and when Amanda passed away, his depression returned for a while. Our world is far too sad sometimes.”

There are ways to share the story and not share the video. How young is too young to show it? Do the counsellor in the school know it is being shown? Is suicide an issue for one of the students in the class? In the school? Are all students ready to see the story from this angle? Are you sure? I don’t buy the idea that since kids can see the video on their own, then we should show it as well as discuss it at school.

There are some wonderful anti-bullying messages that have come from Amanda’s death. But I fear that her story can take vulnerable students to places we would rather they didn’t go. We need to be aware of this, but do we need to bring her personal story into our classrooms?

In both my face-to-face and digital worlds, I’ve met some of the most amazing, caring and well-intentioned educators. But I have to wonder if, with our intentions to deal with stories like Newtown, or Amanda, are we over-sharing? Are we unintentionally creating fear? Are we unintentionally stirring up emotions that may ripple beyond our classroom discussions? Should some of our discussions be intentionally short and clinical as a classroom, and deeper when we, as experienced and caring educators, see individualized signals or cries for help?

Let us think about how we show that we care. Let us not be the purveyors of fear.

*I referred to the person who murdered children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown last Friday as ‘Idiot with a gun in Newtown’. It would be a whole other blog post to speak of how horrible our news media is at iconicizing (not sure if that’s a word) murdering, evil, or deeply disturbed people who commit violent acts. On this principle, I do not name this murderer here. I chose to convey him as a nameless ‘Idiot with a gun in Newtown’. If that offends you, sorry.

17 comments on “Care or Fear

  1. Thanks for this important blog post. My 8 yr old knows hardly anything about it and I really hope she doesn’t find out tomorrow. My 11 year old does (he heard about it at school, before I heard) but I think he understands the rarity of it. I believe that it’s best if my daughter knows as little as possible until she is old enough to understand and handle it better.

    1. P.S. I also agree with you about the suicide video, I think we need to be VERY careful. And also thank you for not glorifying “the idiot”.

      1. Thanks for your comments! In a tweet, Tracy Wallace @blest1111 said, “… from a parent of one that struggled overhearing adults talking after Amanda Todd, I couldn’t agree more.”

        Careful indeed!

  2. Hi Dave,
    You raise important questions here, for both teachers AND parents/families.

    This weekend, I talked with all three of my kids about the shootings. My teenager and I had the most detailed discussions – she asked questions and wanted to know more. About gun control. About mental health. About whether the teachers/principal who died would call themselves heroes. We shared sorrow and outrage. I’m ever so grateful that we have the trust between us to speak so openly. And I followed her lead.

    I wondered what to say (or whether to say anything) to my two boys though (7yo and 11yo). I felt I should probably say something, since they’re likely to at least overhear something – adults talking together and not realizing little ears are nearby. I didn’t want to leave them unequipped but I didn’t know how to start either.

    My opportunity arose when my 7yo found a box with a cap gun in it. His joy at setting it off was countered by my discomfort at the images the gun shots raised in my mind. So I asked him “why do you like that toy?” His answers: the noise, the way the smoke moves in the breeze afterwards. To him, it wasn’t about shooting AT anything – it was much like setting off a firecracker or a science experiment at summer camp.

    And that’s when I jumped in. I left it simple and high level – that real guns hurt people and it’s important to always remember that. That a man used guns to shoot some teachers and kids – and those families are so sad now. That life is precious and hurting others is never an option. He thought about that and was very sad – we talked for a little bit about REAL guns and safety and solving problems without hurting people.

    Later in the weekend, one of the boys said “I’m gonna kill you!” which I called him on. “Not REALLY kill, Mom. I just mean that joking kind of wrestling thing we do.” Again, it was an opening. This time, we talked about the words we use – and that even when we’re just joking around, it’s important to keep our words/phrases respectful and caring. Because our words become our attitudes – and it’s so easy to “fall into” assumptions or habits, becoming immune to the realities of what those words mean. They asked more questions this time and I gave some more detail, but still kept it high level. My little one talked about the “code red” drill at school on Friday – that they locked the door, shut the blinds and crouched down by the math shelves. What sent chills down my back was just a matter of fact to my baby.

    So when I thought of asking if they were afraid of being at school now, I held back. Yes, I agree. We have to be careful not to MAKE our children afraid when those thoughts/feelings aren’t there.

    We need to trust our instincts and FOLLOW their lead.
    And we need to add the context of what we can do EVERYDAY to make this world healthy, respectful and kind – striving in every thought, word and deed to be our best, to forgive, to allow failures and differences without making fun of or hurting others.

    Sorry for the long comment! It’s good to think out loud on these topics – they’re tough and there are no simple, black and white answers.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. When I arrived home on Friday, it was my oldest (on Facebook) that asked me if I had heard the news. We talked for a couple minutes about how sad this was, but following her lead, we didn’t talk much more about it all weekend.

      This really struck me in your comment: “So when I thought of asking if they were afraid of being at school now, I held back. Yes, I agree. We have to be careful not to MAKE our children afraid when those thoughts/feelings aren’t there.”

      Kind of the whole point of my post, but said in just two sentences. Nice!

  3. Thank you for sharing such important thoughts, Dave. I think it is crucial for we teachers to be sensitive and thoughtful in how we speak of such subjects at school. We should be respectful of those parents who shielded their children from the horrible news, but also must be available for those students who have questions if they saw too much. It is in how we handle these issues that we make our students feel safe.

    1. Thanks Michelle,
      I think I do need to write that post about media’s negative message on our (and our children’s) psyche. But I want to tell it in story form, and haven’t figured it all out yet.

  4. Thank you for writing and covering these points, David. I have read many of your past posts and I can’t say “know-it-all” ever came to my mind as I read. 🙂 I appreciate and respect your candor and boldness in addressing many topics.

    The information and recounts of the tragedy started to overwhelm me over the weekend. Social media certainly brings situations up close and personal very quickly. I stopped reading media broadcasts, but continued to read blog post responses shared on Twitter. I read a lot….maybe too much. I didn’t share/forward much via social media. When I decided to share one blog post on FB, this was my status:
    “It is hard to know what to share or post responsibly and respectfully on this tragedy, or if at all. I appreciate the many bloggers in my education network expressing and processing their thoughts and sadness through their writing and reflections – it has helped me do the same. I thought I would share this one today…”

    I also shared one other link on FB suggesting that I thought it might be helpful to parents. It is the same one you have included here as well about what ‘not’ to say. I had a few open conversations with my teenagers. They did not watch any of it on TV news. Much like when they were younger. They didn’t ask to either.

    I recognize that we all have to process this recent tragedy. I recognize how it has impacted educators with it being so “close to home” and I mentioned that to my kids as well. In emotional, distraught moments we may share more impulsively – online and in person. It is hard to be aware of who is around us and how it may impact., so I am glad that the conversation has started in consideration of this here.

    I think as parents and educators it is important to think carefully (once we are calmer) about what the purpose would be behind what we share and/or reassure about such tragic events. I certainly think there would be younger age groups who would not need to be immersed in recounts or explanations in any way (we know how difficult it can be for the little ones who could not avoid such and were directly affected or involved).

    It is not easy to get this clarity and it seems school districts will vary in what they advise staff to do, as well as in who they assign with making that decision of the “what next”.

    I recall the unfolding of 9/11 raising similar questions and issues. The “value” of exposing, explaining, reassuring students to and about such tragedies needs to be considered carefully, I think. So important to have the awareness of who/what it is for. But again, not always easy to do. Parents will often have an intuitive sense of where to draw the line with their own children, depending on each child’s maturity and past experiences, etc. I know how I have felt as a parent when my sense/input was overlooked in these kinds of situations. I recognize that educators may not always be able to have these conversations and insights from parents in enough time. That said, maybe even more necessary to err on the side of caution and discretion.

    Thanks again, David. Appreciate all the comments from others on this as well. Thanks for the space to add my related thoughts.

  5. I disagreed with this post on Edutopia:
    Handling Tragedy: How to Talk to Kids About Sandy Hook
    And so I commented. However, it seems that my comment only shows up when I’m signed in, so I’ll share it here because it speaks very well to my spilt milk analogy as well as to projecting our own thoughts and fears on students.
    Here is my comment:

    Asking or Instructing?

    I’ll start by saying that although I’m an educator, I am not an expert in dealing with grief. I’ll also add that I really like your reassurances you suggest.

    That said, I’m concerned about your introduction. Before asking students anything you ‘lead’ with very strong suggestions of what is ‘expected’:
    “That is very, very sad. When I heard about it, I felt very sad. It makes most people feel sad, scared and mad.”
    You are not at this point explaining what happened but rather explaining what reactions are expected by ‘most people’… Which begs the question, “Shouldn’t I feel this way too?”

    I’m making an assumption here, since this is edutopia, and not a parenting site, that this post is intended for teachers in their classes.

    I wrote this: http://pairadimes.davidtruss.com/care-or-fear/ in which I tried to caution against two things, 1. Adults projecting their fears and feelings onto our students (with good, caring intentions); and, 2. Adults over sharing, and speaking to all students about such a powerfully negative event, when some students may actually feel safe and secure UNTIL (well intentioned) adults present the idea that safety should be something they consider.

    I think “It makes most people feel sad, scared and mad” can be very validating for an individual student who has expressed one or all of these emotions… But I also believe that to address an entire class with this, could easily be a form of embedded command, instructing students to potentially deal with this event in a more emotional way than they would have or than is necessary.

    I suffered through thoughts of ‘what if this happened to one of my kids?’ It is an aweful feeling just thinking about it! But I don’t want my kid unnecessarily thinking, ‘What if that happened to me?’ Or ‘Could this happen to me?’ Or any other thoughts that are invited by adults projecting their fears or sadness or anger onto them.

    Again, I’m no expert. I just would rather that we don’t lump all students together for big therapy sessions when many of them don’t need it, and for that group that don’t need it, it could actually have negative implications.

  6. Being on the other is of the world meant that I woke up to the news of the shootings. Ryan told me when I got up Saturday morning. Since then I have spent the rest of the time avoiding any form of media as I have no desire to read the names of the children, hear or read interviews of the survivors or the victims’ families or try and ‘understand’ why the shooter did what he did.

    If I, a 39 year old woman, find it too much to listen to and deal with, the last thing I would want is for my children/students to have to cope with the emotions that such an event brings up. Fortunately, I am able to shield my children from the shooting and my students here are so far removed from it that even if they know about it, it is not an issue. Ryan and I spend a lot of time controlling what are children see and hear. We don’t watch TV but use Netflix so we do not have to deal with advertising. Ryan began watching his sports delayed and online so that if the girls were watching with him they did not see the advertisements for the R-rated movies or sexist beer commercials. We do not shield our children from everything. They are aware of poverty and have witnessed scales of poverty unlike anything in Vancouver. At the age of 2.5, Imogen visited my dad every day in the hospital and then the hospice until he died. They are aware children and adults do not have enough to eat, that sometimes children are hurt, that adults go to war and kill one another but they do not see the images on the screen that have been edited to have the greatest emotional impact.

    So, how happy would I be if they then walked into a classroom and had someone show them or talk to them about these events – not very. Especially if up until that point they had not thought about needing to be afraid that it would happen to them. How would I address it if I was back in a Coquitlam classroom? If my students brought it up I would listen and discuss briefly to be respectful but then say that they need to either speak to the school counsellor or their parents.

    We are educators – not social workers, not counsellors, not parents. At a certain point we need to point our students to those who are trained and know how to properly deal with these larger issues. Our classrooms need to be safe places for all our students. Just as we need to make sure that all our students’ sexuality and beliefs are respected, we need to make sure that our students’ emotional and psychological needs are also being met. We need to be aware that not all students cope emotionally the same way. In our effort to help, we may be causing more grief. I always gave my students an out anytime we dealt with issues that could be too close for comfort. I would give the counsellor a head’s up if I knew that there might be some fall out from a story we were reading in class. Of course, I had to hope the counsellor was there that day but that is a whole other issue.

    As I tell my students, everyone has a story and usually we are not privy to it. So rather than making assumptions that we know what is best for our students and walk into the classroom to ‘teach’ them how to deal with any given situation maybe we should listen to them and let them tell us what they need from us, to let them have their voice. How powerful is that in a world that can be a scary place.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment Genevieve!

      More on the topic… Here is another perent’s perspective: http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/article/1304238–commentary-tdsb-not-me-
      From the article:
      I said: “With a really young kid it’s my decision, the parents’ decision — not the teacher’s — whether to tell them a madman went into a school and shot 20 kids — kids like them — to death. If Ben hears chatter, I’ll deal with it at home.

      “We made a parenting decision and your board overruled us.”

      And what about that student for whom home life is something school provides safe refuge from? Where a massacre in Connecticut is an entire world away, and school is the only safe zone in their relevant lives? IMHO we need to protect these students from a horrible thing like a school massacre being part of what school is about.

      …On a personal note:
      When my 13 yr old mentioned the massacre in front of my 10 (almost 11yr old) we took a moment to explain that a mentally sick person, in a far away city, took a gun into a school and killed some teachers and students. It was a horrible thing done by a very, very sick person. My daughter asked no further questions, we offered no other elaboration. TV’s were off for the weekend. Schools here chose not to intentionally bring the topic up.
      My daughter grew her hair for 3 years to donate to a cancer patient. She has had birthdays where she has asked for money, keeping 25% for herself to buy a gift, and donating the rest to charities of her choice. She insists on buying Chistmas presents for us with her own money. I don’t need teachers bringing this tragic event up in school to teach her any lessons about compassion or caring or empathy. I don’t need her wondering if a tragedy like this could happen at her school. She is a wonderful, sensitive girl, and if a teacher said, (from the article I previously commented about),

      “A man shot some kids and grown-ups, and some of them even died. That is very, very sad. When I heard about it, I felt very sad. It makes most people feel sad, scared and mad. Lots of people wonder why somebody would do such a terrible thing. It also makes some kids and grown-ups feel worried that the same thing could happen at their (our) school.”

      …That would do no favour to my daughter and could invite a sadness or fear that I would not want associated with school.

      Again, thanks for sharing your thought Gen!

  7. Let’s look at some facts…

    One of the concerns that many people ask us about as we travel is safety, especially regarding children. Without launching into a pointless political debate, allow me to throw out some startling statistics.

    The bad:

    According to a 2013 Washington Post study, “The United States has the highest gun ownership rate in the world and the highest per capita rate of firearm-related murders of all developed countries.” This unacceptable figure is supported by numerous other studies and research. The bottom line, you have the best chance of being killed by a gun right here in the United States. Even the Middle East and Africa are statistically safer according to the United Nations World Health Organization in 2012.

    A report by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) published in Forbes Magazine in 2010 rated the United States in the top 10 most dangerous countries to drive in. According to the World Health Ranking in 2011, the United States had a medium rating compared to a low rating for Europe, Canada, and Australia in road safety. The report showed that the United States was actually twice as dangerous as Europe.

    Well documented studies across multiple areas illustrate the obesity epidemic that the United States is facing. The American Medical Associates cites that in 2009 17.4% of children 2-19 were deemed obese and 30.6% overweight. We lead the world in obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Furthermore, we come in 7th for cancer rates.

    The United Nations World Health Organization in 2010 ranked the United States 38th in health care. Despite the best medical technology and most highly trained doctors, Americans have poor access to health care and shun preventive medicine.

    The good:

    The United States has one of the cleanest airs in the world. Years of environmental activism and regulations are paying off. Better, more sustainable practices are actually working.

    The Columbia University’s Earth Institute ranked the United States the 14th happiest country on the planet in 2012. That is up from previous years. However, most of the northern European countries beat us.

    So, you need to make an informed decision about where you go. Realize, however, that perceptions are very powerful. For example, Columbia is usually given a very bad report by the media for drug violence. However, most of the problem is confined to the southern mountain area bordering Ecuador. Cartagena on the Atlantic coast is far removed from the violence. It is over 600 miles distant. That is like saying here in Seattle, I am worried about crime in Sacramento. Also, the media over plays violence in other countries. Remember, more people are murdered in Los Angeles in any given weekend than in a year in most other countries.

    A friend once told me, “The United States is the most violent country on Earth.” As an American, I found that extremely hard to swallow. After living in other countries and looking at the facts, I now tend to agree. We need to work on some things back home.

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