School superintendent Dan Gaetz spent last Tuesday in a
whirlwind: reaching out to children in his district's 39 schools,
fielding calls from people wanting to help, wondering how soon
parents on the nearby military bases in Okaloosa County, Fla.,
might be called to duty.
The sudden, devastating violence that struck the United States
last week forced Mr. Gaetz to draw on every skill he'd learned as
an educator - including improvisation. And on Wednesday morning, he
got at least one hint that his efforts under pressure may have paid
"A girl came up and shook my hand and said, 'Thank you for
keeping school open,' " he says. She continued: "I know everything
will be OK, because I'm coming to school today."
Repeated school shootings have forced educators to stockpile
tools for dealing with student and community fears. But the scope
of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington created
"There is no template to apply to this situation," Gaetz says.
"Do we go back and dust off reflections of educators from the day
after Pearl Harbor?"
As it turns out, they did something close, seeking out moments to
do what their job demands: Teach.
Quick on the heels of offering whatever comfort they could, they
began to impart important lessons in everything from being helpful
to avoiding stereotypes.
At first, of course, teachers faced immediate challenges:
tracking down parents who were traveling or working at the World
Trade Center or the Pentagon, reassuring parents who came to school
to pick up children. Some confronted the surreal: Middle-schoolers
in Indianapolis, for example, couldn't distinguish at first between
the towers collapsing on TV and the planned implosion of a city
arena they had witnessed in June. In other classrooms, too,
teachers had to explain to kids that what they had witnessed on
television was not in any way "cool."
Many teachers found themselves in the uncomfortable position of
not having all the answers for their young charges.
For Rachel Henighan, who teaches at Stoddert Elementary School in
Washington, D.C., the week yielded difficult lessons about the
extent to which she can keep everything under control.
"You can usually answer all their questions, you can usually
straighten things out," she says. "And you don't know, and you
can't. It's not that it undermines their certainty in you, but it
just makes it that much harder for a kid to cope with it, because
somebody who usually can explain, can't."
Still, many teachers have worked hard to give children a sense of
certainty and to teach them that even small gestures can be helpful.
On Wednesday, schools in Washington and New York were closed. But
across the country at the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, Calif.,
near Los Angeles, principal Nancy Whitson tried to set an example
by purposefully engaging students.
Later, she says, students may explore the issue more
academically. But her first step was to allow kids to talk with
teachers and counselors about concerns. They also turned to writing
letters of condolence and raising money for disaster relief.
Such efforts got under way rapidly in many schools.
Kindergartners in Oklahoma City who were studying "friendship" for
the week also drew pictures for the relief workers in New York. Two
young sisters in Reno, Nev., started a penny drive for the Red
Cross at their school.
In Okaloosa County, where community members reached out by
carpeting school lawns with small US flags, Mr. Gaetz said it
wasn't too early to capitalize on "teachable moments." Wednesday
was Literacy Day, and he marked it by putting the local paper, with
full coverage of the attacks, in the hands of all 30,000 district
students. Some adults expressed reservations about confronting kids
so bluntly. …