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Student Well-Being Opinion

What 9/11 Can Teach Us Today

By Pamela Cantor — September 15, 2021 1 min read
How can I make sure I really get to know my students this year?
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How do I make sure I really get to know my students this year?

I will never forget Thomas’ drawing.

A few weeks after 9/11, I visited his classroom in the Bronx as part of a citywide study on the impact of the attacks. Thomas’ teacher had asked her students to draw pictures to help them process what had happened.

When I looked over Thomas’ shoulder, I saw twin towers in the background with smoke coming out of them. In the foreground, he had drawn two boys pointing guns at each other.

His message was clear: As tragic as 9/11 was, it was far away. The violence in his community was happening up close, and it mattered to him much more.

I assumed that the biggest trauma impacting most young New Yorkers had been seeing those planes crash into the World Trade Center. But I was wrong: Trauma is local.

This period of the pandemic and watching video after video of police violence against Black people has brought trauma home, and to communities of color more than others. But we can only guess at what weighs on other people. Hurts and wounds are not always visible on the outside.

We do know one thing: People of all ages, especially adolescents, want and need to be with other people. That’s not only normal, it’s biological.

Research shows that each person develops—down to the cellular level—through experiences and dynamic interactions with their environment and the people in their life. Trusting relationships trigger the body to release oxytocin, a powerful hormone that not only buffers stress but also builds resilience, ignites learning, and boosts motivation.

Thomas’ teacher helped by creating a safe, trusting space where he could express what was really on his mind. Think about how you can create an environment where students feel comfortable showing their true self. And practice the power of observation. You know how much you can learn during morning greetings and meetings, in advisories, at the cafeteria lunch table, and during bus rides for field trips. In these “safe spaces,” children often tell you what they are going through and who they really are.

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