Violence in the News Underscores the Importance of Listening to Students


August 9, 2016


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A few weeks ago, just after the tragedies in Baton Rouge and Dallas, I met informally with some colleagues. Each of us felt a confusing array of pain and numbness. I remember feeling especially unmoored by seemingly endless and totally senseless violence. I told my colleagues about a vulnerable moment I’d experienced recently—something that had really stuck with me in the wake of all the trauma.

The day after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, my 6-year-old daughter heard a report on “Morning Edition” and asked a seemingly simple question: “Why did this happen? Why would someone do such a thing?” I started and stumbled as I attempted a response, but in the end, I really couldn’t explain the violence that had left so many people hurting.

Reflecting on this experience with my daughter got me thinking about the opportunity I missed to connect with her and validate the anxiety she was feeling. My mind started to race, and I thought, “If I’m having these sorts of challenges as a parent, how do school communities support students as they react to violence, racism, trauma and all the political madness that follows?”

I think of Charleston, Newtown, Dallas, San Bernardino, Orlando, Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, and it’s as if they are shorthand for atrocities. The violence committed in these cities—and the subsequent rancor—reveal, as President Barack Obama put it, “a fault line” in our democracy. And the noise after each event only exacerbates the damage, especially when the “spirit of unity, born of tragedy, can gradually dissipate, overtaken by the return to business as usual, by inertia and old habits and expediency.”

So, how can we welcome and validate the feelings our students bring with them to school? How do we equip teachers and school staff members to connect with the anxiety that our students, and especially our students of color, must feel?

Something I have learned in fits and starts as a teacher, father and husband is the importance of presence. I’m not great at it, as I often immediately jump to fix a glaring issue. And with an enormous, intractable problem like our nation’s epidemic of violence wrought from hate, I have to remind myself of lessons learned on the job and at home. The National Equity Project taught me much about the power of active listening and validation. Our pain, our anxiety, our collective trauma—these can be where we can connect so that we can begin to heal. Along those lines, we can’t understate how important it is to listen mindfully and to validate our students, colleagues and children.

We have had many family conversations about the events that have unfolded this summer, especially as presidential campaigns amplify them, and I’m thrilled that at 6 years old, my little one is asking big questions. Although I initially struggled to help my daughter make sense of the trauma our nation is experiencing, after a few false starts, I recalled the importance of listening with purpose. I finally remembered that although I can’t make all of this go away, I can connect constructively without pretending to have all the answers or knowing how to move forward.

My struggle to answer my daughter’s questions made me think about how our schools will respond to students’ thoughts, feelings and inquiries about the events of this summer. How will our teachers and school leaders listen with purpose, especially to our students who are feeling the most vulnerable?

As OLN members, how are you responding to recent violent events? In the comments field below, I invite you to share tools, lesson plans and articles to connect with your colleagues and show how you are working to respond to your students.