School Leaders: Amid Tragedy, Take Care to Teach Moral Courage
9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Newtown, Paris, San Bernardino ... Tragedy lands on our doorstep, literally or virtually, all too often in our world of instant news. As school leaders we are charged with moderating an appropriate conversation, period of mourning, and path forward - often when we're not so sure ourselves.
To think of tragic events as merely historical lessons is a gross misrepresentation, but to discard them as too emotionally charged to serve as a catalyst for introspection, discussion, a new focus, and action is a mistake.
I had a conversation with my 8-year-old son about the fraction of a clip he heard on the radio regarding the shootings in Paris. We acknowledged that we were both very sad, and then the questions started. My son wanted to know more about the people in Paris and the conflict that might cause such a tragedy. As a young learner, his empathy is high and his moral compass is strong; it was a great conversation.
All our students are curious. How do I, as a school leader, help faculty and parents to have these conversations? There is no shortage of research-based and anecdotal professional literature on how to teach, and learn, through and with tragedy, and a strong school community does a good job of comforting and protecting. Safety is essential, but do we do a good job with the questions? Do we move forward? The more we understand the world, nearby and far away, the better we will equip our students to be morally courageous.
We need the tools to have the conversations, to move forward. The unknown is scary, and the unknown is around every corner. Adults, teachers, and parents all too often push it aside and try to focus on the familiar. Children—our students, sons, and daughters—greet the unknown with an avalanche of questions. They are learners in every circumstance. Our ongoing challenge: How do we—the adults—honor their questions, curate the information, and combat terror and cultural ignorance through education?
Care must be our most powerful tool. We should address the honest questions, have age-appropriate direct discussions, recognize and acknowledge students' fears, discuss the many responses the governments around the world are pursuing, and emphasize the solidarity and common purpose of good people supporting each other all over the globe. The 24-hour news barrage and the anxiety that comes with repeated exposure can only be diminished when students are afforded honest conversations with adults whom they trust, and who inspire them to carry the good and the hope for our world.
Andrew Niblock is the head of lower school at the Greenwich Country Day School in Greenwich, Conn. Previously, he was a division head at Hamden Hall Country Day School in Hamden, Conn., and a teacher and athletic coach at the Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, La.