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NYC Teachers Recall 9/11

Many New York City teachers on September 11, 2001, had to push aside the average person's concern for self and family and focus on the safety of the frightened children in their classes. A book of teachers' essays relates their bravery and creativity on 9/11 and in the days and weeks after. Included: Examples of teachers' actions on 9/11.

Among all the voices that had recalled and analyzed the events of September 11, 2001, Carole Saltz, director of Teachers College Press, realized that an important group was missing: Teachers.

These were the people who in New York City on that awful day had to put their own fears and personal concerns on hold to ensure the safety of the rooms-full of children for which they were responsible. And they did.

Maxine Greene

Many of those teachers tell their stories in the new book from Teachers College Press, Saltz invited a group of teachers, students, and school leaders to attend a series of workshops and write their recollections of 9/11, which became the content for the book.

Saltz told Education World that she was inspired to compile the book in part by the in-school experience of her then 9-year-old daughter in the days after 9/11. "Her teacher was instrumental in starting the healing process," Saltz said. "Yet, I couldn't find anything about teachers' stories on 9/11, in part because unable to give interviews. I just had to find a way to help them tell their stories. We really owe a debt to those teachers"

The quick-thinking and dedication of those educators paid off. About 9,000 students were in the vicinity of the World Trade Center that day, and not one child was injured. "School leaders and teachers kept them safe that day in the days afterward," noted Saltz.

Some teachers write about lining up children and leading them in familiar songs as they marched out of the schools and away from the fire, dust, soot, and falling bodies. Some teachers kicked off their high-heeled shoes so they could run faster. One administrator ran to a school were children were being sent to make sure all the names were recorded so they all could be accounted for.

"To hear those quiet, brave, thoughtful voices was so important for me. We heard a kind of bravery and originality that you don't necessarily associate with teachers."

Many of the essays focus more on the period after 9/11 -- most New York City schools re-opened September 13, to help children get back into a routine. In many ways, these were the harder days for teachers, who were confronted daily with questions for which no one yet had answers: "Why did they do this?" Why do they hate us?" "Will it happen again?" Many tossed out lesson plans and spent time helping children feel safe again and talking about events in the world.

"I think teachers used the wisdom and sense of what they knew and followed kids' leads in what they needed to do next," Salz said.

Maxine Greene, a former professor at Teachers College who wrote the forward for the book, talked with Education World about the importance of recording and hearing teachers' 9/11 stories.

Education World: Why did you think it was important to collect these essays?

Maxine Greene: I felt it was very important for voices that haven't been heard. To hear those quiet, brave, thoughtful voices was so important for me. We heard a kind of bravery and originality that you don't necessarily associate with teachers. I don't think anyone could have imagined the richness of this. I think a lot of people asked themselves, "What would I have done that day?"

This created another community of teachers; we have little contact with people who actually confronted terror in this country. But these essays show that ordinary people could pull themselves together.

EW:What is unique about teachers' recollections in the history of 9/11?

Greene: A lot didn't know they were such good writers. But also, instead of talking as individuals, they talk as people with huge responsibilities, as teachers whose prime end in life is not only to educate the children, but to save the children. They weren't thinking so much about themselves. Imagine if you are watching two children and the responsibility you feel. Now imagine the responsibility if you have 25 children you are responsible for and who are frightened. What does it take to not make you think about yourself?

EW:What made coping with the day's events harder for teachers than some others in the city?

Greene: Because of the terrible responsibility of other people's children. Other people's lives are devoted to these children. You have to devote yourselves to the whole group [of kids at once.] They have to come together, and they were all equal under this emergency. These teachers chose themselves to be healers.

EW: What struck you most about these essays?

Greene: I think the clarity and the honesty. No one put on a show -- they're simple, but they sound authentic. I know other people [from academia] who might call in experts if they had to write something like this. But these people did it right out of their experience -- and each one is different.

EW: Many of the educators in the book talk about their experiences in the days after 9/11. What were some of the unique challenges teachers faced in the days and weeks after 9/11?

Greene: The days after were frightening and challenging in different ways. They were even more complicated in the problems they presented teachers with. You couldn't think so much of the class now but the individuals. The idea of identifying individual problems made things more complicated.

They had to do a kind of therapy they were not trained to do. After 9/11 there were a lot of individual problems you had to think about -- like children who lost a parent or a relative. If one child has a death in the family, it's hard to deal with. Imagine a whole class [dealing with a tragedy]and having seen things like people jumping from the towers. There were not enough specialists to deal with everything, so teachers had to deal with it. Usually, we try to protect children from things like that; people jumping from buildings.

EW: What do you hope people take away from reading these essays?

Greene: They should gain more confidence not only in teachers, but in ordinary people. Somehow we can trust them more than those hot-shot speakers on TV. They're more trustworthy than people who are making movies about this. These are simple, educated voices. I'm finding out more about human beings than I knew before.

"Instead of talking as individuals, they talk as people with huge responsibilities, as teachers whose prime end in life is not only to educate the children, but to save the children."

EW: How, if at all, can teachers use this book in class?

Greene: I think it depends on the age of the kids. If the kids are young, they shouldn't have to deal with the idea of the towers falling again and again. If they are a little older, you can talk about translating ideas into words and pictures.

But I think all teachers in training should read this; it's better than a book on methodology. These teachers showed you what you could do [A lot of books are written about dealing with urban students and the challenges they face.] This has a different quality; this is not a book about victims -- it's a book about healers. And that's very important.

This e-interview with Maxine Greene is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2017 Education World

Originally published 09/06/2006
Last updated 09/11/2017