At 7:30 Monday morning a faculty announcement rang out over the PA system. “Report to the cafeteria for an informational meeting.” When that particular, unplanned announcement is given—and is repeated—teachers know it’s not a good thing. It never is. Turns out several colleagues had attended the Jason Aldean concert in Las Vegas where a gunman unloaded round after round into an audience from the 38th floor of a hotel. My coworkers survived, but they are bruised, battered and emotionally and physically drained from the horrific events. One, hit by shrapnel, had been unable to save the woman next to him. Another was badly bruised and probably saved several lives by his selfless actions. To many they are heroes. To others they are lucky. One of them simply said, “It wasn’t our time.” People said, “You are in our thoughts and prayers.” That last comment stopped me short. I am really tired of hearing tales of sacrifice and empty lines that ring hollow now because we’ve heard them too many times for them to still mean something.
Our thoughts and prayers are with you should mean something. In my school, students have become numb to the word “disaster.” One told me in a class discussion that a mass shooting is “commonplace.” When I pressed, he explained, “Well that stuff is normal to all of us. No big deal Ms. P.” All I kept thinking was, “When did wholesale violence become normal to these kids?” As teachers we can’t fix everything, but we do have the power to act as a force for good instead of reacting to senseless murder. It is up to us to help our students understand that their world doesn’t have to be this way. Here are a few suggestions about where to begin.
Take time to teach tolerance and understanding. It is easy to say but harder to put into action. We have to integrate social justice and empathy into our classroom conversations. Sometimes it is as simple as using a book or a story to start both the dialog and reflection. Many organizations have outstanding resources to encourage positive discussions about compassion, understanding and the elimination of hate. Check out the Social Justice Book List from the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and exemplary resources from Teaching Tolerance as a start.
Teach students how to deconstruct events and analyze the media they read, hear and see. It is imperative our students understand that discussions from different point of views are an important and healthy part of our civic life. It is critical that we teach them to analyze what is in the media, including the difference between fact and fiction. We need to teach our students to be critical thinkers of what they see in social media and help them to become media literate now—not later.
Teach students we are stronger together than alone. Whether we are experiencing a national disaster or something else, we need to model how we are stronger together than alone. Collaboration can be learned. We must support working together for a common cause rather than taking sides to stand alone. It is important for all citizens to have their own viewpoints but America was built on the ideals that independence and unity can go hand in hand. Revisiting that concept is important.
In the face of disaster, we can passively allow ourselves to become numb or we can act for the good. Let’s resist the idea that what happened in Las Vegas is ordinary. It’s time to recommit ourselves to supporting each other and heal the divisions in our country regardless of the immenseness of the task. We can’t do it all, but teachers can start the work. The time is now, both for us and for the next generation.
Michelle Pearson is the 2011 Colorado State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. She is is a middle school social studies teacher in the Adams 12 Five Star School District in Thornton, Colorado, where she has been teaching for 25 years.