After the initial threat of Hurricane Harvey passed and we all began dealing with the aftermath and devastation, I began thinking about and brainstorming ideas for a lesson plan to use in helping students process and work through what happened as well as their fears and anxieties.
Although I came up with lots of great ideas, what I quickly realized is that one lesson plan won’t cut it.
Those who have gone through great tragedy do not heal or work through their anxieties in one sitting – even with the most perfectly crafted lesson. No. As educators along the gulf, this year we must embrace our additional role in helping so many students cope with loss as well as so many others whose homes were spared but who now must cope with all they’ve seen and heard as a result of this devastating storm.
What our students need is an outpouring of love and support that continues throughout the school year. Just like Hurricane Harvey poured out countless gallons of water into our region and seemed to almost halt to a stop over our city, now we must flood our students with continuous love and support even as the school year presses on.
Here are some ideas for ways we can meet our students’ needs as they process through the impact of Hurricane Harvey on their lives:
We must start with a positive presupposition. Most Texas and Louisiana educators don’t know our students very well yet as most just started the school year, and some, like those my district, haven’t even started our first day of school yet. Because we haven’t had much time for relationship building yet, it will be hard to tell if a student is misbehaving out of defiance or as a reaction to all they’ve been through as a result of this storm. We must start with the assumption that if they are acting out it may be a reaction to this trauma they’ve just been through.
Allow students to share. If a student brings up what happened with you or even as a part of a class discussion, don’t try to quickly change the subject. Instead, allow the student to share their story and their feelings with you and/or their class – even if it changes your lesson plan for the day. Hurting kids won’t learn much anyway. Take care of their needs and then move forward in the curriculum.
Provide structure and consistency. Students have had many days of uncertainty – some more severe than others. All of our students have had so much inconsistency due to changes in schedule, who they’re spending time with, where they sleep, what they eat, etc. Make your classroom and school feel safe by providing structure and consistency that students can depend on.
Provide choice. Our students experienced a lack of control (as did many of us) during this event. As often as you can, provide students with choices in your class to give back a sense of control over their lives and environment. Even small choices can make a student feel empowered.
Treat each day like a fresh new beginning. Don’t assume that because a student was upset or even crying yesterday that they will walk in upset today. If you greet a student in such a way that you are assuming they are sad, you may trigger additional upset. After you greet the student with a smile and happy welcome, if you can tell they are upset, then, of course, investigate further or provide support.
Prepare students for transitions. Just as students start to feel safe and comfortable in our classes, it seems it is time for another transition in our school day. Help students to prepare for transitions by being up front about what is coming next and when it will happen. Post a schedule, but also give verbal reminders about upcoming transitions.
Privately ask, “Are you alright?” When you see a student is not meeting your expectations, whether not taking notes or speaking to you or their peers in an unkind way, pull the student aside and privately ask, “Are you alright?” If the student shares what is wrong, listen and be there for them. Most students will respond that they are fine, at which point you can say in your most kind and sincere tone, “I was concerned when you (insert behavior here) because you weren’t meeting our classroom expectation of (insert expectation here).” Using this method frames the “re-teaching expectations conversation” around caring for the student – building the relationship by showing concern first and foremost.
Ask them to write you a letter or get to work. In his blog post Control What You Can. Manage What You Can’t, Josh C. Howard suggests pulling a student aside who is off-task because they are clearly upset about something to tell them that you noticed something is wrong. Josh suggests saying, “Could you maybe write me a letter about how you’re feeling so I can understand? If you can’t do that, I’m going to need you to get [back to work]. Why don’t you go get a drink and come back when you’ve made a decision about how the rest of class is going to go?” Josh reports that some students write the letter and others get back to work, but either way, he showed compassion as a teacher and furthered his relationship with the student who was clearly upset about something.
Provide a safe space in your classroom to regroup or calm down. Provide a space that any student can access if they need a break, need to calm down, or just need time to breathe. You could include paper to journal thoughts, squeezy balls, or headphones with soft music. Offer this space to students when you sense they need to cool off or calm down, but also allow students to access the space on their own. We take mental breaks as adults when we are going through difficult situations – we need to teach and allow our students to use this self-soothing strategy as well.
Communicate. Be sure to communicate with the school counselor and/or school administrators about students who are frequently upset or who you have concerns about their mental well-being or their behavior outbursts. Communicate with parents and work together as a team to meet the student’s needs and help them to work through their stressors to participate successfully in school.
Fill your own bucket. Serving and caring for others takes a toll. Be sure you reach out to others in your school and community for support, spend time with family and friends, and take time to do things that re-energize and rejuvenate you. You can’t serve your students well if you are not well yourself.
Our students’ developing brains are constantly forming connections. There is no doubt in my mind that this catastrophic event impacted those neural pathways as they were forming – and that will have a lasting impact on our students.
So, again I say, no one lesson plan can possibly be enough to help our students. Our efforts must be sustained and relentless throughout this school year and possibly beyond. Let’s flood our students with love and support throughout this school year.