Each week, an educator shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in Education World's Voice of Experience column. On this September 11, educator Brenda Dyck looked back at how teachers on the MiddleWeb teacher listserv reacted to the events of a year before. President Bush was right, she concludes, when he said America's teachers were among the heroes of 9/11.
"We have gained new heroes those who battled their own fears to keep children calm and safe -- America's teachers." -- President George W. Bush Address to the Nation World Congress Center Atlanta, Georgia November 8, 2001
My role as an educator is multifaceted. In addition to teaching, I am responsible for gathering and saving the daily email postings from MiddleWeb listserv discussions so that they can be posted in an easy-to read format for readers. I collect and preserve the thoughts, feelings, observations, and struggles of some of the savviest educators found in our profession.
Today I find myself poring through the archives from the week surrounding September 11, 2001. It is my own personal way of remembering the events of that day. I am moved by what I read, for before my eyes I see brief listserv postings suddenly transformed from random emails to meaningful historical documents that expose the strength and courage of the educators who walked the nations' children through the initial shock of the September 11th terrorist attacks on America.
The first teacher posting of that day sounded like a quiet voice crying in the wilderness:
"My class has just spent the last period watching ABC news. This is so devastating; how do we explain this terrorism to our children?"
This cry for help seemed to jolt educators into response mode. A rash of emails began to flood in. A teacher at a Department of Defense School in Germany described the chaos and fear around her:
"Thank God our children are already home. We are now locked in on our local bases. No one can be out except essential personnel. Our students are all too aware of the implications for us. They are expecting problems here in Europe directed at us. Explaining this is not easy, not totally possible We find that explaining is not so much necessary as letting the students talk about how they feel and how this makes them feel. I will also do some writing probably through the journals and let them talk it out in their discussion groups."
Many teachers spoke of their frustrations and emotions:
"Our district superintendent has put the kibosh on conversation for today at school."
"I get the feeling that students are amazed that something 'this bad' can happen in the United States. The only time I have seen the children completely fearful or upset is when a teacher has made a speculative remark about the responsible parties, repercussions of this action, or possible future actions in the presence of children. I urge you to remember that children's ears hear even when the conversation is not directed towards them."
"Unfortunately the cancellation of the football game tonight seemed to be more important to some of the kids. How can I best explain to them how irrelevant the game is? "
"One issue we ran into today was racial slurs being made about people of Arab descent. Our hope is that our students don't judge people based on their race."
"I was humbled again as I drove home seeing so many moms and dads picking their kids up at school and walking home together as a family, holding hands. It made me cry. It made me feel like the very fabric of my world was under attack by someone."
"The recent terrorist acts in NY and Washington have left me reeling. I believe New York City mayor, Rudy Giuliani, said it best: 'Today, everyone is a New Yorker!'"
Teachers had to put their own fears aside so that they could attend to the fears of their students and parents:
"I am truly horrified and not sure how we will handle things at school tomorrow."
"We also dealt with upset, worried, perplexed students. Teachers struggled to carry on their lessons in spite of sick feelings in their stomachs and an awareness that something very precious had just died. We were very cognizant that teachers would be the first adults these children would be looking to for comfort and answers and we handled that trust with compassion and honesty."
"I know it is going to be chaotic and the students will be frightened since we [in Europe] are 'on the front lines' all the time the way it is. We will spend seminar talking about this and allowing the students share their fears and feelings. Many have family and friends near where the hot spots were today as they are not that far from military bases. If we go 'to war,' my students' parents will be some of the first to go. This is terrifying for all of us."
"Here in the metro Washington, D.C., area it looks like a surreal painting. Some our students have parents who work in or near the Pentagon. The National Institutes of Health is across the street from the Navy Medical Center. There are armed guards all over the place."
"There was a rush of parents at one point because a radio announcer caused panic."
Virtual friendships are no different from any other. It wasn't long before listserv members were asking about the whereabouts of one of our New York City listserv colleagues.
"I just want to know if Naomi is okay. Do we have any other listserv members in New York City?"
"Driving home listening to NPR today, I was doubly anxious to get home -- to see my family, and to check in with you all. I too was thinking of Naomi."
All of us breathed a sigh of relief when we finally heard from Naomi:
"It was a rough day, but we made it. I had to walk across the bridge into Manhattan to get home, since they weren't letting cars in. Now we have to deal with the aftermath. It has been scary. I suppose that if we don't have world peace ... we don't have any peace. - Naomi"
"I am so thankful that all our NYC friends have messaged us. Thank you so much. Yesterday I couldn't bear to even email the list to ask about Naomi. I was overwhelmed with sadness. So I am reminded to be thankful for every minute and for the priceless things in my life -- my family and friends, and I count you guys among my dearest cyber friends."
One teacher shared examples of middle school students at their best:
"With all the shock and questions and all, two moments stood out for me at the school. One was of one 9th grade boy reaching over to stroke the hair and cheek of another 9th grade boy who was upset and had his head down on his desk. Another was of one 8th grade girl who just minutes before in the classroom had piercingly asked, 'Why can't we all be at peace?' [Now she was] looking over the roof of the school at the moon between the trees and saying, 'How beautiful it is!'"
What will the afterimage of 9/11 be for our students? What will they remember about these chaotic days with us? Like President Bush, I believe that their afterimages will include the teachers who created order out of chaos, assurance out of fear, and protection from perceived danger:
"We must not show our children panic or lack of control. They must feel confident in us and that we will protect them and keep them from harm. Whether or not we can, in reality, keep them from a terrorist attack is not the point. They need the reassurance and belief that we can."
Brenda Dyck teaches at Master's Academy and College in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching sixth grade math, Brenda works with her staff in the area of technology integration. Her "Electronic Thread" column is a regular feature in the National Middle School Association's Journal, Middle Ground. Brenda is a teacher-editor for Midlink magazine.