School Climate & Safety Commentary

Crisis Coping 102: Taking Care of the Caregivers

By Robert Evans — November 21, 2001 6 min read
Teachers have provided comfort and reassurance to both students and parents, even as they have returned to the business of educating.

One of the great, unsung stories of America’s response to the attacks of Sept. 11 has occurred in our schools. It is less vivid than the heroics of rescuers, the enormous donations of money, and the poignant candlelight services, but to anyone who has traveled among schools over the past two months, the reactions of teachers and principals have been inspiring. Across the country, beginning on the very day itself, they have provided comfort and reassurance to both students and parents, and have continued to attend to the needs of both, even as they have returned to the business of educating.

Years of crisis-intervention work in schools have taught me to expect nothing less. Most educators are born caretakers, and when disaster strikes, they tend to concentrate unhesitatingly on the needs of their students. Even without formal crisis training, and even in the face of catastrophic events, most teachers naturally respond in sensitive, effective ways that comfort children and parents alike. But going forward, the key to their continued success will be something they are not nearly so good at: attending to their own needs. To continue good caretaking, caretakers must take care of themselves.

Each individual’s reaction to a crisis is affected by many personal factors: Some people tend toward fear, others toward anger; some cope through humor, others through tears, and so on. But as the initial shock and disbelief begin to wear off, certain kinds of concerns commonly emerge. Many people worry that their reactions are unnatural or extreme. For example, some teachers have become concerned for their own safety to a degree they know is unrealistic (one told me, in disbelief, “I keep thinking terrorists have targeted my supermarket”). Some have found their beliefs undercut by their fears (opposition to racial and ethnic profiling vs. worries that Arab-Americans could be dangerous). Others have felt exaggerated “survivor guilt” when they read or hear of individuals somewhat like themselves who died.

And still others have discovered a grim preoccupation with the details of the event (how victims actually died, what they were thinking and feeling). In the privacy of their own thoughts, people often wonder if the extent or intensity of these concerns means that they have a serious psychological problem.

Teachers feel an obligation not to let students down—and not to let down in front of the students.

A frequent surprise is how strongly new loss rekindles old loss. Since loss is one of the most powerful experiences in life, all the deaths and disappointments that are important to us tend to be linked in our thoughts and feelings. A new loss, especially a dramatic, tragic one, can trigger memories of past wounds, and these may re-emerge with unexpected strength. A teacher whose husband was killed by a drunk driver 15 years ago found that reading an article about all the families who lost husbands and fathers at the World Trade Center reopened her grief almost as if it were fresh.

Along with these kinds of reactions, some people also develop physical and behavioral symptoms. The former can include difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, and nervous stomach, among other things, and some people who experience these worry that the symptoms will intensify into chronic problems. Others find that they are less able to concentrate and closer to the edge, to tears and anger. A principal told me of a teacher who helped enormously during the first days after the attack, but who, a week later, fell apart when her classroom’s computer system failed temporarily. Another found two teachers—good friends—shouting at each other in the parking lot over a disagreement about who was to monitor recess the next day.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are individuals who do not develop strong reactions. They seem not to have been affected, or not deeply. Others may find this equanimity surprising. They themselves may wonder if there is something wrong with them because they aren’t as upset as they should be.

All these kinds of reactions and concerns can happen to anyone; they are not unique to teachers. But except for the last, they often strike teachers with particular force. For one thing, as caretakers, teachers feel an obligation not to let students down—and not to let down in front of the students. For another, teachers are used to a structured world in which they can work with students in an organized way, and the events of Sept. 11 were not only sudden and shocking, they are unfinished and could lead to other sudden shocks, especially now that the United States has begun its counterattack.

There has been no shortage of advice about coping these past weeks, all of it well-meaning, but much of it too complex. This is not a time for long lists, but for simple truths. Here are four that stand out:

  • These kinds of reactions are normal and rarely persist. None of them, even the fear of going crazy, is abnormal in the wake of a tragic loss. As a general rule, most symptoms disappear and most individuals return to their previous level of coping. Improvement can be gradual and there can be intermittent relapses, and of course we can’t be certain of what is to come—if there were to be further tragedies, they could complicate coping—but even in the worst and most devastating of circumstances, the unmistakable trend for most people is toward resilience. It is remarkable how humans rebound and adapt. The mark of success is not instant recovery, but progress over time.
Stress can be relieved in only two ways: by gaining control over one's circumstances and by creating mutual support. When the former isn't possible, the latter is essential.

  • It does not help to pretend to be unaffected, and it will not damage students if a teacher is occasionally emotional about the tragedy or takes a little while to get back up to normal speed. There are all sorts of lessons to learn in school, including those about how people function in the face of major life events. Students may be surprised to see a teacher in tears, but unless it becomes a pattern, it is unlikely to do any damage to them—especially if they get a straight answer when they ask why.

  • It does help to get back to work. The rituals and patterns—even the demands—of school life are comforting to everyone. Students are a big help in this regard, as many teachers have noted. “Even when I wake up thinking I can’t do it,” one says, “as soon as I arrive and see the kids, with all their normal energy, interests, issues, and needs, it just gets me going. Before you know it, you’re involved with them and it’s noon time.” There is important work to do, and it will make everyone feel better to be doing it.

  • Most important, there is no substitute for support: Find it and give it. Stress can be relieved in only two ways: by gaining control over one’s circumstances and by creating mutual support. When the former isn’t possible, the latter is essential.

In many schools, teachers are highly supportive of students and very nice to each other, but do not turn to one another for help with the kinds of stresses I have described; there is little tradition of displaying feelings or weakness in front of colleagues. It can therefore be helpful to make an occasional, formal place for “debriefing” over the next few months. A good way is to suspend some regular business at some faculty meetings, so that staff members can share observations and reactions—not just about how students are feeling and doing (young people tend to be more resilient than adults), but about how staff members themselves are feeling and doing. Useful here would be to talk not just about worries, but about coping strategies faculty members are finding helpful.

As awful as it is, a crisis of unimaginable proportions brings some blessings, one of which is to force us back into touch with the fundamentals of human relationships. While someone who develops a sustained symptom or a continuing concern will benefit from professional support, all of us will do better together than separately. Even if the coming weeks and months bring exceptional challenges—especially if they do—nothing will help more than staying connected and doing for one another what teachers so naturally do for students.

Robert Evans, a clinical and organizational psychologist and consultant to schools, is the director of the Human Relations Service in Wellesley, Mass. He is the author of The Human Side of School Change (Jossey-Bass), and can be reached at www.robevans.org.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Crisis Coping 102: Taking Care of the Caregivers


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