Q: I’m a 6th-grade teacher in New York, and we’re constantly doing safety drills at school. Code reds,code whatevers, you name it. We did the last one not long after the Pittsburgh shooting, and my students wanted to know, “Why do we keep doing these drills over and over again?” So I talked to them about the current state of affairs in our country, and I showed them footage of reporters discussing how people were killed in their own house of worship. A few of my students’ parents flipped out on me. They said they’re very careful at home not to expose their children to upsetting events in the news. One complained to my principal that her daughter is now having nightmares. My principal has asked me to clear it with her if I’m tempted to show students something similar in the future. She gave me a copy of the book Yardsticks and explained that she wants me to “understand my students’ emotional lives better,” but this all feels hypocritical to me. It’s OK to teach kids how to cram into a closet to avoid being shot to death, but we can’t explain why we have to do these drills in the first place? Tell me please: Did I do something wrong? I’m feeling annoyed and a little defensive, but I’m open to your opinion. I’m also wondering what I should say to the angry parents. Do I need to say anything at all?
A: I understand your reasoning, but it’s flawed. We have kids do tornado and earthquake drills, but I’m guessing you don’t feel compelled to show them footage of extreme weather events. We do need to prepare students for worst-case scenarios, but we also need to understand their developmental readiness. I know your intent was simply to provide context, but the typical 11-year-old can’t process news about violent events. They may perceive that they’re in immediate or chronic danger, or they may incorrectly believe the events they’re viewing are happening in their own community. It’s also not uncommon for kids this age to be anxious about their safety or to have nightmares.
This is why your students’ parents complained. The ones who contacted you or your principal likely have been shielding their children from the 24/7 news cycle. They’re frustrated because they feel you undermined their efforts, even if it was unintentional. I doubt you would have had this issue if you’d reached out to them in advance. That would have given them the chance to share their concerns with you or to have their child opt out. They also could have debriefed with their kids afterward, which might have helped them process the information.
I’m not suggesting that you can’t explain drills to your students or answer their questions, but take your cues from them. Answer the questions they ask, not the questions you think they’re asking. Clear up any scary misconceptions, stay calm and neutral, and tell them the adults at school are keeping them safe. Sixth graders have different maturity levels, but they all need reassurance. In general, stay away from visuals, which can be upsetting. When in doubt, check out resources on the Common Sense Media or Teaching Tolerance websites, or consult with your principal. She sounds wise, and she genuinely wants to help you. She gave you a copy of Yardsticks to fill what she saw as a gap in your knowledge, not to shame you. She wants you to have a solid sense of where your students are socially, emotionally and intellectually.
As for what you should do now, I’d be open and honest. To avoid exacerbating the problem, meet with angry parents in person or, at a minimum, talk with them on the phone. Tone tends to get lost over email. Share what you’d hoped to accomplish and own the fact that it didn’t have the desired effect. Let parents share their concerns, give them your full attention, try not to get defensive, and tell them what you plan to do differently going forward. You won’t be acting hypocritical — you’ll be keeping kids safe while minimizing their psychological distress.
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