Teaching Profession

Teachers Delay Dealing With Own Grief, Anxiety

By Julie Blair — October 10, 2001 9 min read
Resources for Educators Bush Visits N.Y.C. Elementary School Religion Rules Afghan, Pakistani School Day Student Poll Asks How Schools Talked About Terrorist Assaults Patriotism and Prayer: Constitutional Questions Are Muted Schools Hit the Hardest By Losses on Sept. 11 Monitor Emotional Toll Teachers Delay Delaing With Own Grief, Anxiety Terror Touches Schools

The image plays again and again in Michelle Colon’s memory: the plane splintering like a plastic toy upon impact with the World Trade Center, her mother trapped inside the skeleton of the flaming tower next door.

Although the story has a happy ending—her mother got out alive—Ms. Colon continues to be haunted by thoughts of what might have been. Still, she reports each morning to New Jersey Regional Day School, where she is a resource teacher for autistic students. It is an environment she knows she can control, a place where she is needed and can do good. It is also a refuge from the pain, if only for a while.

The recurrences of that nightmarish scene “usually happen at night, when I’m not busy and have time to think,” said Ms. Colon, who witnessed the Sept. 11 terrorist attack from the grounds of her school, across the Hudson Bay from Manhattan.

Like Ms. Colon, teachers, principals, guidance counselors, and other school employees around the country are struggling to cope with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon four weeks ago. Because of the nature of their jobs, however, few are provided with or take the time to ease their own grief or worries.

Instead, they embrace the role of the responsible adult to give their students a sense of normality during a period of sudden anxiety for Americans. Despite their own losses and insecurities, educators report that they are pushing forward for “the good of the kids.”

Psychologists, though, warn that many of those grown-ups are in a fragile state. Without enough time to deal with the personal impact of the attacks, or the resources to help them do so, they could burn out in their jobs or slump into depression. Even school employees who live far from the sites of the assaults are susceptible, experts say, because modern communications brought the news disturbingly close to home.

“Faculty members are expected to be different from the rest of humanity,” said Ted Fineberg, the assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists, a Bethesda, Md.-based membership organization. “Clearly, they are going through many of the issues all of us are going through—shock, confusion, dismay, fear, anxiety.

“It is critically important that we make sure the caretakers of our children are being cared for,” he said. “If the adult system breaks down, we’re going to be in a pretty difficult situation.”

Cathartic Exercises

First-year teacher Jill Novenstein confronts the events of last month every day as she walks the 10 blocks from her home in Manhattan to the Legacy School for Integrated Studies, a public school with a once-spectacular view of the World Trade Center. Her route takes her past the Memorial of Hope, a makeshift tribute that emerged in the days following the attack.

Ms. Novenstein looks at the candles, signs, and posters as she passes, yet she no longer sees them.

“I try to separate myself from it,” she said.

Once inside the safety of her own classroom, however, Ms. Novenstein commits to listening to her own internal monologues. Every day since Sept. 11, she has asked her 9th grade English students to write in their journals about their feelings. She writes, too, about her own experiences.

“When you write about it on an intellectual basis, you’re more able to deal with the issues,” Ms. Novenstein said. “For me, doing the journal entries has been cathartic. I feel lucky that I teach English and can do things like writing.

“On the Friday we returned to school, we had only one hour to reflect, then it was back to work,” as administrators had requested, she said.

Theresa Miceli said she isn’t yet ready to confront the events of that horrifying day. The 20-year-old student-teacher was working with disabled preschoolers at New Jersey Regional Day School when she learned from a colleague that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Like her colleague, Ms. Colon, she had a family member in the building. Ms. Miceli’s mother worked in word processing for a law firm on the 57th floor.

“I thought my mother was dead,” Ms. Miceli said. “She has a hard time getting up and down stairs. It took her three and a half hours [to evacuate] during the 1993 bombing.”

Fortunately, Ms. Miceli’s mother escaped, but the ordeal left her daughter devastated. She hasn’t yet been able to bring herself to explain the situation to her own 5-year-old child. “I still haven’t faced what happened,” Ms. Miceli said. “I know it is selfish, but all I care about is that my mother is fine. I don’t care about anybody else.”

‘In Your Backyard’

Such strong emotions aren’t limited to those who live near the disaster zones.

“The fact of the matter is that with today’s communication links, a crisis 300 miles away feels like it is happening in your backyard,” said Mr. Fineberg of the school psychologists’ group.

In many cases, moreover, there was just one degree of separation between those caught in the attacks on the East Coast and families living elsewhere, said Linda Mihata, an English teacher at Lakeridge High School in Lake Oswego, Ore., near Portland. Several students at her school have siblings or other relatives living in the Northeast.

“We’ve been as shaken up as anyone,” said Ms. Mihata, who watched coverage of the burning buildings on television at school on Sept. 11. “I’ve never cried so much in front of my students. There are still days when I’ll say, ‘I’m not myself today.’ ”

The president of the American Federation of Teachers calls educators and their colleagues heroes for the roles they played last month.

“I’m just hoping that people will realize how pivotal the schools are in holding families together,” said Sandra Feldman, the organization’s president. The AFT is the parent group of the New York City teachers’ union.

“I think a lot of teachers have put off their own grief,” she continued. “Whether we will see ramifications and repercussions when they have a chance to breathe, Idon’t know.”

Teachers and staff members in the New York schools risked their own safety to lead more than 8,000 children out of danger on Sept. 11, Ms. Feldman said.

Others put aside their own concerns about family and friends to ensure the physical and emotional well-being of their students.

Teacher Jerry Belmonte spent the entire day trying to get in touch with his students’ families and fielding incoming calls from frantic parents, all the while trying to track down his own daughter and coordinate a plan for her to leave Manhattan, where she attends college.

“I’m in charge of 100 kids, and I made contact with each and every family,” said Mr. Belmonte, who teaches 7th grade mathematics at Glenfield Middle School in Montclair, N.J., a suburb of New York.

Though none of his students lost a parent, the attacks claimed the lives of 17 people who had connections to the school community, he said.

Adult Help Limited

School districts appear to have provided ample crisis-intervention programs for students, and educators in the hardest-hit schools say they have tried to take a sensitive and balanced approach to helping the bereaved children. (“Schools Hit the Hardest by Losses on Sept. 11 Monitor Emotional Toll,” this issue.)

But many experts worry that the needs of those who serve anxious or grieving students aren’t getting enough emphasis.

While some educators report they have access to help through on-site school psychologists, telephone hotlines, and Web sites, others say that services have been more limited.

“We now have a decade-long history of responding rather quickly to [students’] mental-health concerns,” said Jerald L. Newberry, the executive director of the National Education Association’s health-information network. “We have no such tradition for adults. Only recently have we started realizing the physical and emotional impact on personnel.”

When a traumatic event occurs, administrators are generally well-prepared, he said, to provide teachers with lesson plans, packets of literature on childhood depression, and Web addresses where they can find more information.

What teachers also need, Mr. Newberry said, is time together in the morning or the afternoon to talk to one another about what they are going through. They also need administrators to stop by their classrooms and ask them how they are coping with the situation.

“It might appear to the public that teaching is a social job, but the reality is that you are isolated from other adults,” Mr. Newberry said. “In most offices, you can get a cup of coffee, stop by to talk with a colleague, and get some support; in education, you are locked into schedules and classrooms.”

First lady Laura Bush, a former teacher and school librarian, has been working to draw the public’s attention to the issue.

“Teachers are in a very, very hard position,” Mrs. Bush told television host Oprah Winfrey last month. “They are suffering exactly the same emotions we are, the same sadness, the same confusion, the same feelings of insecurity, and they’re taking care of our children.”

‘More Listening’

The Manhasset, N.Y., public schools, located on Long Island, recognized the special needs of school employees during the current crisis and set up a drop-in counseling center for them, said Noreen Cambria, the director of guidance and counseling services for the district. Two dozen families in the school community lost relatives in the attacks, she said.

“The faculty is very drained,” Ms. Cambria said. “It is important to care for the caregivers in a crisis.”

Some teachers’ groups are also providing similar services for their members.

The AFT, in conjunction with its New York City affiliate, has offered counseling for both teachers and students. The unions also helped coordinate a relief effort for the city’s schools.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association dispatched a seven-member crisis-intervention team Sept. 19 to East Stroudsburg, Pa., a two-hour commute from Manhattan. The NEA affiliate responded following a request from the local union and district administrators worried about staff members and students.

The union team broke up into groups and led discussions with dozens of faculty members and parents, said Myra R. Reichart, who headed up the effort along with another colleague.

“The process [for us] was more listening than talking,” Ms. Reichart said. “We asked them to tell us how they were feeling, how they had heard the news, how things are going in their classroom.”

Few symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are evident now, she said, because teachers “are so focused on making sure their children are OK that they routinely put aside their own emotional needs.”

Symptoms of the disorder—irritability, sleeplessness, overeating, lack of appetite—may surface weeks or months later, Ms. Reichart said.

Professionals are also rallying around one another to provide support, said Joan Kniss, an English teacher at Brighton High School in Colorado, near Denver.

Staff members at her school are especially mindful of the worries of young educators, who may be overwhelmed by the needs of their students and are unprepared to handle such a burden.

Restoring Routine

Others, Ms. Kniss said, are preoccupied with thoughts of sending loved ones into a possible war.

“We’re trying to protect our young teachers, because there is a lot of stress on them,” she said. “As a first-year teacher, you have enough to deal with in just getting through the day.”

Such efforts are helping to restore a welcome sense of routine. Just the same, many school employees agree life will never be quite the same.

“It could have been any one of our schools hit,” Ms. Kniss said. “You’re extra careful now to look over your shoulder.”

Staff Writers Michelle Galley and Catherine Gewertz contributed to this story.

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