Teaching tragedy


As an educator I have learned over the years that I am my best with students when I am not part of the story.  A skill which I know is not easy to come by or keep up as all to often my colleagues will look at me and almost seem confused how I do not  cry or break down when something tragic has happened.  This is not to say that I don’t dread a breaking news update because I do, especially when that update either directly impacts my school community or when it is on a global scale like the situation unfolding in the Ukraine and Gaza.

For those of you who my think , how can she call it a “situation” I say it  purposefully because my personal feelings on the event remain my own and I rarely if ever impart my own feelings on my students so I tend to avoid words like tragedy, horror,  horrific, terrible, awful, criminal, etc.  When you students from 8 – 10 different cultures sitting in a classroom, my political and socio views are simply that and to me the classroom is a place to form ones own views based on ones own moral and ethical belief system.

Facilitating such discussions can be difficult and I often find myself agonizing over exactly how to do it, how much information needs to be shared with students,  how much should be shared with students, and at times if should be discussed at all.  However, over time I have learned that ignoring local and global events only leads to ignorance and stifles change instead of fostering it.  Therefore, I urge my staff to teach these events responsibly and with as little bias as possible, letting the students form their own opinions by encouraging them to say what they think and talk about what they have heard.

Conversations like these are never easy.  Emotions can run deep.  You never know a student’s past.  I vividly recall someone casually making mention of the events in 2012 Aurora Shooting thinking the event was to far removed to have an affect on anyone she was speaking to.  Little did she realize my family was directly affected with a relative surviving the mass shooting.  It’s one of the many reasons I always encourage staff to proceed but proceed with caution as conversations tend to take their own direction.  Case in point – I recently had a staff member call me  to debrief after she allowed her math class to go often tangent completely to discuss cultural differences between her students.  The tension in the room grew difficult as some of her students have some very strong anti-American beliefs which she herself was quite surprised by (and certainly not the direction she was planning), but she supported each of her students, including the outspoken ones, in speaking up and provided a safe environment to do so.   The conversation allowed her students to see each other in a different light and to appreciate  each other differently.  Even if it meant agreeing to disagree.

The reality is global events like, the downing of flight MH17, the conflict is Gaza, weather related disasters like tornadoes, typhoons, and earthquakes, as well as more local ones personal to ones hometowns are probably not being overlooked by every child in your classroom.  They will have questions, concerns, and feelings.  They will seek answers when many times there are none and while many students may have parents or family to give them the opportunity to explore these thoughts and feelings, school provides a  platform for those who have not had the opportunity to do so and another platform for those who have to continue to develop their own opinions.

This infographic from The Helpful Counselor  puts a lot of the data surrounding global situations into perspective;


To support this kind of teaching, below are some links to resources that provides strategies and ideas.

The video below also touches on some ideas for teaching tragedy;


I have found that I have learned more about dealing with difficult situations from students then from anyone else I have discussed it with.  Often times their opinions are raw, unbiased, and filled with deep thought and honesty.  As an educator who promotes social justice and seeks to bring about  change providing a safe platform for students to explore the world around them, especially the difficult moments is a teachable moment indeed.


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