Scientists who know about such things announced the “Doomsday Clock” has been advanced thirty seconds closer to midnight, the metaphorical moment of annihilation, leaving humans two minutes to tend to potential self-destruction. Global nuclear gamesmanship and climate change joined forces, prompting the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to issue this dire warning.
Even to adults, that news is pretty terrifying.
But bombs and meteorological disaster are not the only bad news for mankind. Every day, anchors deliver grim accounts of violence, dishonesty, prejudice, inequality, poverty, disease.
Make no mistake: our kids do overhear sound bytes about school shootings, ICE raids and terrorist attacks. Screens transport them into images of mass destruction: super storms, wild fires, mud slides, mushroom clouds.
2018 is a tough time to be a child.
So how can teachers make kids feel safe when the world around them is so uncertain?
1. Create a community
It is the most challenging element of teaching. We don’t learn how to do it in grad school. Community evolves over time and is among the significant features of successful classrooms. In today’s world, where danger seems to loom perpetually, community is more important than ever. Computers or administrators generate our class lists. Kids are brought together by external factors: ability, age, geography. For better or worse, they come to us in tidy alphabetical order. Some of them already know one another. Some even show up disliking each other. It is up to us to create a community of learners. Within the context of daily instruction, we have to find ways to grow trust, inspire tolerance, encourage mutual esteem. Predictability, fairness, structure and respect define safe classrooms. Kids have to feel safe with us and with one another to able be ask questions, to take the academic risks essential for progress and success. They have to learn to trust us and to trust each other. When we refuse to accept stereotypes, when we promote kindness, we are building community and being part of something bigger than themselves where they feel valued makes kids feel safe, even if it is only for 45 minutes at a time.
2. Practice safety
Fire drills. Lock-down drills. Weather drills. Unwelcome interruptions in what we want to accomplish each day. No one wants to think about worst case scenarios, but we have to have a plan. Practicing safety means mastering procedures, who to call, where to go, what to do. Adults may think that drills scare kids, but knowing that their teachers are in control is reassuring. And we have to practice safety every day, even when there are no alarms going off.
3. Use your school’s resources
Counselors, social workers, psychologists are all school professionals trained to support kids in times of stress and anxiety. They have the skills to provide strategies to kids who fear deportation or random violence. They provide teachers with a means to this end as well. They have ways of interacting with kids that mere mortal teachers don’t. They can guide kids to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes without being preachy or condescending. Call on their expertise.
4. Listen to kids’ fears
Sometimes kids just have to talk and know someone hears them. When horrifying things occur, kids need to debrief and speaking out at home may not be an option. They just want to articulate what scares them. When so many other demands are competing for our attention, finding time to simply listen is challenging, but to a child afraid that his parents might be on a deportation hit list, a teacher’s ear can be a lifeline. If a child has chosen you to hear her fears, be present.
5. Empower students
Finally, we have to find ways to infuse control into kids’ daily lives. Fear is most potent when we feel helpless. The world around kids today is ripe with dangers too big for them to manage, problems they cannot solve. Finding ways to empower kids puts them in the drivers’ seats. Kids can’t prevent leaders from taunting one another with the nuclear button, but providing some choice within the learning community gives kids a sense of control within their own lives. Having a say in what happens to them in school can make kids feel temporarily safe.
Teachers in high risk districts have known this all along: the world beyond the classroom can be a scary place. Information overload now brings a host of terrors into everyday life. Before our kids can absorb the wonderful lessons we labor to create for them, they have to feel safe enough to learn.