Back to School After a Shooting

Between a conversation with a Marshall teacher last week and another with a mental health care worker in Parkland, it’s clear that teachers in schools recently affected by gun violence are thinking about going back to school. Some are contemplating that first year back after the summer.

The summer after a shooting is a mixed bag. You miss your colleagues and have been worried about your students. You feel a little like a lifeline was severed, even as you are so relieved to have some of the pressure off. A colleague of mine put it best in May of 1999: “I just want to come have breakfast with you all every morning this summer. We can just be together, eat breakfast, and go home.” That would have been perfect.

I could write pages and pages about the first year, but instead, I’m going to condense to the most important things I can think of off-the-cuff:

  • You know that “new normal” everyone tells you is coming? It ain’t coming this year. And that’s a good thing, because this is going to be a hard, hard year. We kept stopping and looking at each other and asking, “My God, is this the new normal? Because if it is, I want off the ride. Now.” It is not the new normal. Give it a few years.
  • Personally, I recommend finding a good therapist. My husband was an awesome support system, and I was sure I could make it without a lot of outside help. (I didn’t really gel with the therapist I tried; I should have kept looking). The thing is, I didn’t really take into account what supporting me was costing my husband. Turns out it was a hell of a lot.
  • On that note: Form support groups for partners and spouses. The teachers are going to be hard to deal with, especially at home after giving everything they have at school all day. Partners need a place to vent where everyone gets it and no one judges because they are sick and tired of their messed-up partner/spouse.
  • You won’t be messed-up forever. I’ll say it again: You won’t be messed-up forever. Say it with me: We won’t be messed-up forever.
  • You will mostly be a basket case this year. It is not your new normal, and you won’t be messed-up forever.
  • You and the kids will hug and cry a lot. It’s OK. One time I was crying in the girls’ bathroom with a student while two other girls put on makeup and barely seemed to notice us. It was our temporary normal. We all got each other through.
  • While you can’t fall apart in front of your students, it’s OK to get weepy, and it’s OK to be honest about your own feelings. It’s vital to be honest. When they see you acknowledge and express your feelings, you give them permission to acknowledge and express theirs. If this makes outsiders (i.e. anyone who wasn’t there with you) uncomfortable, tough shit for them. Do NOT let anyone tell you that you have to be Iron Man in front of the kids.
  • Cut back on the workload for you and the kids. Don’t dumb-down, but do strip down to the most essential learning. Everyone’s attention span is at a low. New learning is difficult for traumatized brains, and you won’t have energy for the usual grading and planning load. If anyone tells you that you must continue to deliver instruction as you always have, tell them to take a hike.
  • You’re going to struggle in a tug-of-war between compassion and standards, knowing that the kids need all the skills they need for college and career. This year, err on the side of compassion. Next year, up the expectations. If you go too long on the compassion thing, it’s hard to come back. It’s complicated.
  • High schools need to remember that freshmen are in a weird place. They may be traumatized by proximity and family connections. They may not. It’s hard for them to blend into high school already, but one bound by tragedy? Even harder. Help them out. Admin needs to facilitate this with great attention and intention.
  • Don’t let anyone give you a timeline to “get over it.” There’s no schedule. Besides, you’ll never get over it. In time, you will be OKI absolutely promise that—but you will never “get over it.”
  • Hug each other. Love each other. Forgive each other and yourselves. Forgive it all—the times you bite each other’s heads off, or you think someone did something inappropriate, or you don’t get someone’s feelings or they don’t get yours. Breathe in the pain, feel it, acknowledge it, don’t judge, and breathe out love.

If you are an educator who has survived a shooting, and you have other questions, leave it in the comments, email me (use the contact button above), or ask on Facebook. BTW, if you haven’t joined The Rebels Project and The Rebels Project for Educators on Facebook, look into it. The groups are nothing but support for survivors.

About admin

Paula is an author of historical fiction as well as a wife, mom, and teacher.
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8 Responses to Back to School After a Shooting

  1. Anna Strauss says:

    Thank you for sharing. I’ve been trying to psych myself up to start a new year after our shooting in December. I know there is not a “fix-it” I would like to share with our staff if that is ok. Thank you for your words and reassurance.

  2. Robin Walker says:

    Thank you for printing this, Paula. I think you are right about everything. It’ so sad that many are constantly joining the ranks. Thank you also, for the trip you and Kiki made to Newtown right after our shooting. You were honest with us and encouraging, at the same time. It helped me and my husband. Please keep on speaking out to help those who have faced something like this.

  3. Kim Bassett says:

    Hi Paula,
    I second what Robin said. You and Kiki were invaluable. I just wish the district had been more receptive to giving you a larger audience. Personally would like to mention the impact on our own children, who have to deal with a parent that is exhausted mentally and physically from the school day and may not be providing the emotionally support that they need. These kids may be (are) suffering their own trauma from the tragedy and it is important to try and get them help as well. Thank you for all you do.

    • admin says:

      So true! Spring break of the next year, I took my son on a road trip. A colleague and his son were camping (I don’t really camp) nearby, so we got the boys together. Kevin and I happened to walk over to them while they were talking about how scared they were when we went back, and I realized that this was my son’s first chance to talk to another child who had lived his experience. We walked away and let them have their privacy. I think it was a good thing.

  4. Amy Lepore says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I fully intended to attend your talk at Marshall this summer, but as summer came to a close, I felt I couldn’t breathe. The morning you were scheduled to speak at my school, I made it from the bed to the couch and just sat. All day. I didn’t think our shooting had such an impact on me, but I am now seeing a couples’ therapist (since I really have been a handful at home and didn’t realize it) and have talked to my doctor about my anxiety. I am more mindful, but loud noises and screams in the hall still send me into a panic. I am trying to give myself a break. Type A personalities don’t do that very well. Thank you for being there for the rest of us.

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