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Create a Positive School Climate After a Tragedy: Voices from Ferguson

August 25, 2014 / by Teaching Channel

Editor's Note: As many of us were starting to feel back-to-school excitement, a tragic story was unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, by a police officer on August 9th, set off civil unrest that brought in the Missouri National Guard, and soon after, the decision to delay the start of school. As this community, raw and emotional, returns to school this week, Teaching Channel is very grateful to the faculty of Parker Road Elementary in the Ferguson-Florissant School District. They have shared with us how they plan to help their community heal. And keep reading… at the end of this blog, we have some resources to help you address this national tragedy at your school, with your teachers, families, and students.Ferguson child Photo Credit: Laurie Skrivan/MCT for The Kansas City Star

From Tragedy… to a United Community 

Janelle, 3rd grade teacherJanelle Clasquin -- Third Grade Teacher at Parker Road Elementary

A start to a normal school year is filled with stress, anxiety, and definitely excitement -- I can never get a good night's rest the day before school begins. The shooting tore through us all emotionally, and I think it is safe to say that the first days of school at Parker Road Elementary will feel different than any other year.

I will be honest, I am not sure what to expect come Monday morning. Community-building will be essential as we get back to normalcy, both at school and at home. Community is one thing that our school does not lack. Walking through the hallways at Parker Road, you will always find teachers and personnel with smiles on their faces and that sense of belonging. Our school community is strong, caring, and fearless. I believe there is strength in our differences and we are all stronger together.

As teachers, we take on so many roles: nurses, mothers, educators, counselors, mediators, facilitators -- and our classrooms are a safe haven. All of these roles will be important as our students walk in our doorways tomorrow morning. What we can do, will do, and have already done, is find a way to come closer together as a community. Our students have recently become a part of history, but their future is held in our hands.

Creating a Positive School Climate After a Tragedy

Kristy, principalKristy Houle -- Principal at Parker Road Elementary

The last few weeks in Ferguson have been full of loss, anger, confusion, and sadness. Creating school safety will be a very real and very pressing issue facing teachers, administrators, and school communities when the doors open on Monday. The climate of a school has always been, and will continue to be, essential to our success in educating our children, and preparing them for a life beyond its corridors.

Even I, as a school principal, have reservations as to how we rebuild this school culture -- to not only be what the children need, but what the families and staff need, as well. Everyone will be thinking about the positive reinforcements, school climate and culture, and what it will take to make education meaningful to students who are coming out of a recent tragedy.

In a matter of minutes, newcomers and returning students entering school after a tragedy will make initial judgments. How does it look? What do we see on the walls and in the hallways? What messages do the bulletin boards send us? In order to answer these questions, we have a responsibility to assess the school climate and listen to the students as to what they need from us.

At our school, Parker Road Elementary, we will recognize those needs and address them accordingly. The students will be met with hugs and smiles as they file back into the classrooms. Smiling teachers, bus drivers, librarians, and custodians will be genuinely glad to see them after a long summer. Groups of caring parents and community members will line our walkways and parking lots with signs of encouragement, praise, support, and love. This is the positive school climate that we will continue to build as the year progresses.

We also know that these children will be coming through our doors with questions, stories, thoughts and feelings they will need to share. Teachers are prepared to hear them and give students an outlet to voice their opinion and have their voice be heard. It is our job to show these children that there is a better way to resolve our differences. It will also be a time to educate them on the freedoms we all too often take for granted, and to use this tragedy as a springboard to focus on the potential that they all hold to be successful.

Building a Positive Classroom in the Midst of Tragedy

Derek, 5th grade teacherDerek Herbst -- Fifth Grade Teacher at Parker Road Elementary

My wonderful students will be here Monday morning ready to learn, and I will be ready to teach them! I encourage working cooperatively, discussing, building and creating, laughing, and helping others on a daily basis in my class, and will continue to do so no matter the circumstances.

In my classroom, we have a class meeting each day. This is a time to discuss important topics and life lessons. Students see this as a time to bond with one another as a class. This time will be crucial to those who need to have a voice. We do not judge what our fellow classmates say, but discuss feelings towards a topic. Support for students can come from anyone in the class, not just myself as their teacher, but also other students. We end our meeting by coming together and putting our hands together to say our class cheer, "We care about each other -- each and every day!"

I also give Super Positive Awards to students every day -- and they walk a little taller when they wear them. It's just one more way that students keep thinking of positive ways to impact our school community, and it gives them the confidence to go home with a positive attitude.

The students will LOVE school this year, just like they do every year.

Healing History

Tiffany, office professionalTiffany Allen - Office Professional at Parker Road Elementary

I have been a resident of St. Louis, Missouri, my whole life, and I've lived in many of the municipalities that make up this great city. Ferguson, Missouri, was my home for many years, and I never thought it would be the location for an event that I am sure will become a part of our American history.

Fast-forward to August 11, 2014, days after the shooting, and it’s "Meet the Teacher Night" at Parker Road Elementary School. I've been the Office Manager of this school, which is a part of the Ferguson-Florissant School District, for one year. I never thought I would be so excited to see the families (both familiar and unfamiliar) walk through the doors. To be the first and main person to help them after the tragedy is something to take pride in. That night, as the families filled the halls of the school, everyone was all smiles, including me. No one would have guessed that just hours before this event, there was looting and vandalizing of businesses in Ferguson following a protest for Michael Brown.

The meet and greet was a great success, but there are still so many questions looming in my mind. What do I say if one of the kids asks questions about the protests? What if I am asked about the looting? What do I say? How do I say it? What will happen if I say the wrong thing? These questions are like a news ticker in my brain, and it's set on repeat. But what I have learned about myself while becoming part of the Parker Road family is, I can handle it.

There is no right or perfect answer to any question. All I can do is be honest and provide direction. While it may sound simplistic, being positive and greeting everyone with a "Good morning, what can I do for you?" is a large responsibility. We as a staff have to be attentive to our families. Some days may be a breeze, and others more turbulent, but we will get through this together, and help each other heal.

Resources

"Preparing to Discuss Michael Brown in the Classroom" (DC Public Schools, Washington, DC)

"#dontshoot" by June Christian, PhD from the College of Education at UMSL (Teaching Tolerance)

"Helping Students Make Sense Of A Young Black Man's Death In Missouri" by Juana Summers (NPR.org)

"Becoming a White Ally to Black People in the Aftermath of the Michael Brown Murder" written by Janee Woods (What Matters)

"Supporting Our Children: Resilience in a Time of Crisis" by Vetta L. Sanders Thompson

Statement to Students, Faculty and Staff from University of Missouri-St. Louis's College of Education

Topics: Class Culture, Equity, Social Justice

Teaching Channel

Written by Teaching Channel

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