No man is an island; neither is a woman or child. We are all part of the whole called Humanity. One of our tasks as teachers is to help children understand that. If any of us happen to be not just teachers but also trusted responsible adults, our students would bring in their worries, problems and questions as well as share their joys and woes with us. The younger they are the more open they may be. Each day we may be greeted with a veritable barrage of information about families and friends, with the concerns which may range from a small conflict at a playground to world events. After a quarter century of teaching and a similar experience as a mother, I cannot say that I know all the answers, but I do have reliable guidelines, and a vast experience to share. There are two simple rules I follow when faced with anything non-curriculum related in the classroom.
1. A question is asked to be answered. If I see that the level of anxiety caused by some extraneous event is high, I try to calm down the children and explain or reassure them to the best of my abilities.
2. I do not initiate a discussion of a news item myself. Whenever students of any age and level rush in shouting their questions or sharing their shock, I consult the parents if possible.
We definitely cannot ignore the world at large. Today’s children do not watch TV, but even very young kids have some gadget at their disposal. If even one young child in your class has a Smartphone, it means that in no time at all everybody else would hear any newsworthy item. “Thai boys are trapped in a cave!” This came in the middle of a consultation; all the eleven-year-olds immediately dropped whatever they were doing and rushed to the boy who had shouted it out. Such a report goes straight to their hearts; they empathize with the group and feel it all keenly because of the age similarity. Thanks to the immediacy of modern news coverage the whole world watched the incredible saga for two weeks. We cannot pretend nothing is happening or tell our class to ignore that. It is better to allow a few minutes for a review at every lesson.
Very young children would marvel at any story about a giant alligator caught in Florida or a crocodile caught in Australia; teenagers may be fascinated by any human interest story. And then of course, sadly, there are other types of news which may evoke very emotional reactions.
For instance this is what I recently read online: “A Somerville, Massachusetts, kindergarten has a nursery rhyme on its wall that you likely won’t find in a children’s book: It tells students what to do in case of a lockdown.
“Lockdown, lockdown, Lock the door / Shut the lights off, Say no more / Go behind the desk and hide / Wait until it’s safe inside,” https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/lockdown-poem-kindergarten-result-apos-194721063.html
This is a big step from the usual “Stranger Danger” lessons or fire drills. We adults understand why the sad necessity arose, why the US teachers decided to do that kind of training for five-year-olds. But how do we explain it to the children? I would start with the parents, talk to them about the modern dangers, listen to their suggestions, but certainly NOT post such a poem in the classroom without prior consultations. Parents and legal guardians are responsible for the underage children; we cannot make unilateral decisions without their knowledge. Our sphere of activity is mainly education, the national curriculum – and teaching about life too. While the students are at school, in the school building, we teachers are responsible not only for their studies but also for their safety. So it is necessary to find a balance, to remember that we are the adults and thus we are the ones who must act when needed.
Many European countries are now faced with the migration crisis. What does it mean for education? Any teacher may suddenly get a number of new students whose backgrounds are vastly different from the conventional ones. Some of the related news read like horror movies. Life, as Sir Conan Doyle used to say, is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. Nobody prepared us for the sudden changes and new challenges. Even in my native Siberian town there are now lots of Africans who study at the local university; in summer there is an advent of street vendors from the Asian and Caucasian republics, mainly Muslims. There is an ever-growing Chinese Diaspora. I have always known this fact: there are more than a hundred nationalities peacefully co-existing in Siberia. Most of them are white, with a sprinkling of some Northern nations, ethnic Koreans, Asians. Now the population is changing in front of my eyes, yet it is still peaceful. But of course any teacher can see the enormous differences in the upbringing, in customs and traditions, in religion.
Today it does not really matter which subject you are teaching. Children remain children. They need our support, our help and reassurance. When you have to deal with children of various ages on a daily basis, you have to be ready for the unexpected 24/7. To quote an old wisdom, nothing that the parents do should ever surprise you either. One educated and dedicated teacher may manage to calm a crowd of children and adults alike. If you feel that you cannot cope with a situation by yourself, do not hesitate to ask for help. Look at that story about the cave again. The Thai coach, I understand, was the one who put his young team in danger; yet he managed to keep them all alive and helped with the rescue, staying with them till the last one of them was finally brought to safety.
Nina MK, Ph.D.