Academic journal article High School Journal

"I Had to Teach Hard": Traumatic Conditions and Teachers in Post-Katrina Classrooms

Academic journal article High School Journal

"I Had to Teach Hard": Traumatic Conditions and Teachers in Post-Katrina Classrooms

Article excerpt


"The general impact of a natural disaster makes it one of the most challenging crises to be addressed by a teacher" (Damiani, 2006, p 35).

Before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005, one hundred and twenty one schools in the New Orleans Public Schools (NOPS) system were in the process of being transferred to the newly created, state run Recovery School District (RSD). On September 29, 2005, the New Orleans Parish School Board fired all 7500 employees, including every teacher. If the change in school leadership and the historical neglect that precipitated the changes were not enough, the disaster brought another layer of crises that would confront teachers as they tried to resume educating the returning students to the public schools. This research study examines the instructional practices of teachers following the disaster and explores the role written literacies played in their instructional adaptations.

In this two-year study, the evidence revealed that a disaster event required teachers to make specific changes in disciplinary content and instructional practice. All the teachers acknowledged that teaching after Katrina's devastation brought unexpected challenges to the classroom. As one teacher stated, "I had to teach hard. I worked harder that semester than I have in my [whole] teaching career" (Personal Communication, August, 2006). Teachers found instruction after the disaster to be "hard"; teachers not only had to cope with their personal stresses but also had to manage unstable environmental conditions, changes in adolescent behavior, and school disciplinary changes that occurred during the recovery process. For the English Language Arts teachers, oral story telling and written narrative tasks became important tools for coping with the challenges.

Existing Curricula for Addressing Traumatic Conditions in the Classroom

A natural or man-made disaster is a critical life event, which may result in traumatic stress brought on by the unexpected changes of living without a home, clothing, food or safety. Adults may experience sleeplessness, numbness, recurring nightmares replaying the event, inability to focus, inattentiveness, emotional outbursts, paranoia and more aggressive physical behavior (Dyregrov & Mitchell, 1992). Over time, responses may include physical illness and new physical disabilities or debilitating pain. In adolescents, the stresses from the disaster can be manifested in poor decisions, involvement in risky behaviors, distrust of adults, violent outbursts and/or withdrawal. Research on the effects disasters have upon adolescents has revealed similar conclusions (Goenjian et al., 2001; Warheit et al., 1996; Weems & Overstreet, 2008; Reijneveid, Crone & Verloove-Vanhorick, 2003).

Directions for educators on how to handle these behaviors through classroom instruction offer general advice (Picard, 2006) and declare the value of school in creating a safe environment for building resiliency (Brock, Lazarus & Jimerson, 2006; Jaycox et al., 2006; Lerner, Volpe & Lindell, 2003; Kruczek & Salsman, 2006). Since Katrina, some research and information has been gathered about the traumatic stresses that affect teachers and children (Bedford & Kieff, 2009; Carlson et al., 2010; Masten & Obradovic, 2008; Wachtendorf, Brown & Nickel, 2008). However, this array of information has not focused or analyzed what specifically happens in classrooms when teachers attempt to address traumatic stresses through disciplinary content and teaching practices. Even less research has explored what makes teaching after trauma most challenging for teachers.

In 2008, The Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, edited by Dorothy Singleton, revealed lessons and literacy activities specifically designed to meet the needs of African-American children (Singleton, 2008). The collection paid special attention to the effects of education, or lack of academic equity, in the New Orleans schools and family environment (Morris, 2008). …

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