As the floodwaters caused by Hurricane Katrina recede, it’s becoming clear that teachers have been among those most acutely affected by the storm. In a survey of its districts, the Louisiana Department of Education found that some 12,000 of the state’s teachers have been displaced. With the continuation of jobless pay and benefits uncertain, the state has urged uprooted teachers to seek teaching jobs in the areas where they have found shelter. Late last week, the department even placed a full-page ad in papers across Louisiana instructing educators how to apply for jobs and exhorting that “Katrina’s kids need teachers.”
But with so many educators looking for new schools, the competition can be tough. More than 100 teachers turned up at an invitation-only job fair in St. Charles Parish, which planned to reopen its schools this week. One applicant, a PE teacher whose home in Chalmette, Louisiana, had been destroyed, noted that he recently ran into his former principal looking for a teaching job in Houston. Another said that his old principal is now teaching 3rd grade in Baton Rouge.
Odds may be better out of state. A number of states—particularly those that have absorbed large numbers of evacuated students—have loosened licensing and documentation requirements to take on teachers from Louisiana and Mississippi. New Orleans chemistry teacher George Robertson found that he could get special treatment even as far away as Los Angeles, where he is staying with relatives. “When he told me he was from New Orleans, my jaw dropped,” said Deborah Hirsh, L.A. schools’ human resources chief. “I grabbed him by the elbow and took him myself to his interview.” Robertson was hired on the spot. Of course, as Hirsh tacitly acknowledged, it didn’t hurt that he teaches science.
Teachers in storm-affected areas aren’t the only ones whose lives have been changed. The number of students displaced from schools in Louisiana and Mississippi is now estimated at more than 372,000, and educators at points throughout the country are working to integrate these often-traumatized new pupils into their schools. “This is unprecedented,” said Jill Cook, director of programs for the American School Counselor Association. “There is a lot of learning as we go along.” Allowing for the myriad logistical and emotional issues involved, many parents and educators say that getting the children into classroom routines is crucial to restoring a sense of normalcy. “Talking about [Katrina] is good, but talking about Harry Potter is good, too. You need a little bit of both,” noted Kathy Christie, a vice president with the Education Commission of the States.
A sense of normalcy, however, was not in evidence at Jesse H. Jones High School in Houston, where tensions between local teens and New Orleans transfers resulted in a fight that left three students hospitalized and five arrested. Details were sketchy, but student comments suggested that turf issues played a role. Arthur Gaines, a Houston school board member, said that more should have been done to help students at Jones empathize with the new arrivals. Jones, where 55 percent of students are African American, has received 200 student evacuees, more than any other high school in the district. “I don’t think we should have just assumed these youngsters were going to melt in because they were black,” said Gaines.
On a more hopeful note, the hurricane has provided teachers throughout the country with a series of significant “teachable moments.” A look at classrooms in the Washington, D.C., area, for example, found that teachers were resourcefully using the storm—as well as students’ deep interest in events surrounding it—as the basis for lessons on subjects as varied as meteorology, environment, engineering, economics, and sociology. But perhaps the most common topic of discussion was students’ emotional reactions. “They’re very concerned about the people,” Abby Hendrix, at teacher at Redland Middle School in Rockville, Maryland, said of her students. “Everyone has been asking what we’re going to do to help them.”
Delone Catholic High School in McSherrystown, Pennsylvania, has come up with a, shall we say, interesting way to help. In a move some might say borders on extortion, the school vowed to play the 1996 Hanson song “MMMBop” through its PA system between classes and during lunch until students and staff broke down and donated a total of $3,000 for hurricane relief. Delone’s principal, Maureen Thiec, said that when student council members first ran the idea past her, she thought, “Oh, my goodness, the teachers are going to kill me.” Since then, though, several teachers “have given very generously,” she said.
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