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Professional Development Opinion

6 Things Teachers Can Do When Bad News Strikes

January 19, 2017 4 min read
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By Angie Miller

A couple of months after September 11, 2001, a parent called me, concerned about his son’s grade.

“He had an A last quarter, and now we’re looking at a C-. What’s going on?” he insisted.

A first-year teacher, I hadn’t yet developed the knowhow to read data for identifiable trends or patterns, but as I looked at the overall picture, it became clear that over the past months his son was not the only student who had increasingly turned in late and low-quality work. How had I missed this? “Do you think that Tyler is having a hard time wrestling with the news?” I asked.

“I think that’s an easy excuse,” he said. “I doubt that September 11 is impacting 8th grade English.”

I wondered.

I turned seven the day after Ronald Reagan was shot, and not one teacher talked about it. On a cold, sunny, January day, the Challenger space shuttle blew up with a teacher from my state on board, but not one of my teachers addressed the tragedy. And the morning after our country entered the first Iraq war, not one teacher spoke of it to my senior class.

The morning after the 2016 election, a first-period 11th grade English class sat in front of me visibly subdued. I knew, from my own experiences, that if I did not acknowledge their discomfort and fear, they would learn nothing, except perhaps that I did not value their feelings. Upon reflection I still find myself asking, what can teachers do when events in the news affect our students and their ability to learn?

Teachers are understandably uncomfortable bringing the outside world into their classrooms for many reasons: What if something controversial comes up and parents complain? How will I ever get through my content? How do I facilitate an honest conversation without my own bias coming through? Can I allow students the space to process events without it consuming our day?

Though there is risk involved when talking about news or controversy, there are ways to integrate important current events in the classroom responsibly.

Show both sides. Sites like ProCon.org or Opposing Views help students understand opposing views of events, and their improved awareness can minimize their feeling of helplessness. When students are allowed to explore their concerns in school, they feel respected. Using these sights helps teachers to keep their own biases at bay.

Connect current events to the curriculum. Use immigration numbers in math. Connect current laws in question to earlier times in history. Investigate bias in science and connect it to bias in other areas. Show students how to read graphs and charts by using graphs and charts about news topics. Look at NFL concussion rates in health. Study speech styles of prominent newsmakers for English. If our curriculum is relevant, it can always be connected to something meaningful.

Include reflection in current events assignments. Many of us assign weekly current events, but do we ask our students to reflect upon them? Grant your students the space to write about what they think and feel. Does this news make them sad? Hopeful? Confused? Does it open questions for them? Help them understand that there’s a big difference between consuming news and reflecting on it.

Invite guest speakers. Guest speakers provide your students with firsthand experiences and broaden their understandings of the greater community. When my brother-in-law from Egypt came in to talk to my students about the Middle East, he was the first Muslim Arab any of them had met. Stereotypes were broken down and students approached the news differently after that. After a Sudanese Lost Boy spent a day with my middle schoolers, they watched the news about Darfur with a renewed interest and a fresh perspective.

Show students ways to make a difference. If students are upset by the news and want to talk about it, encourage them to look at what is being done and how they can help or support. They might hold a fundraiser or write a letter to a legislator or a newspaper editor. When students actively contribute to solutions, they will be more optimistic, and less passive, about their world and their future.

Offer students outlets for expressing worries or concerns. When students become visibly upset about an event, a teacher saying, “It will be okay” or “don’t worry” feels belittling. Instead, connect them with a school counselor or another adult who will listen and offer them ways to process their emotions. Whether or not you agree with how students feel, always acknowledge that their feelings are valid and offer them healthy routes to talk about it.

Following the events of September 11, I did a disservice to the students in Tyler’s class. I led them on a forced march through the curriculum, reading Dracula without acknowledging the immense confusion they wrestled with. I know better now.


Angie Miller is the 2011 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, a TED presenter and a National Geographic Teacher Fellow. A freelance writer and school librarian, Angie can be followed at www.thecontrarianlibrarian and @angieinlibrary.

The opinions expressed in Teacher-Leader Voices are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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