Friday, January 14, 2011

Teachers, grief and growth

When Jared Loughner killed Christina Green in Arizona last Saturday, he disturbed the lives of other children across the country as well, raising questions about the world “out there.” But the children at Mesa Verde Elementary School, the ones who will not see Christina again, are more than disturbed ( Their parents and their teachers face the nearly insurmountable challenge of helping them to make sense out of this event, and to reconstruct their world as safe enough to move about, sleep at night, trust the other, and think about something other than the possibility that someone might shoot them.

A new rhetorical battle royale has broken out between the adults who think that nasty political rhetoric framed this attack and those who think that Jared was mentally deranged and unaffected by that rhetoric. They are both right and both wrong – as is so often the case in life’s interesting moments. Jared Loughner is mentally ill; his asocial and antisocial behavior is definitive of mental illness. And the use of targets and gun metaphors by political and media figures makes certain things imaginable, especially to the mentally ill.

But the teachers at Mesa Verde and elsewhere are dealing with a different issue. What is the right emotional tone in the classroom now? What does one say – and not say? How can I comfort this child without alarming that one? Where do we draw the line on self-absorption, encouraging students to live through their pain and their questions?

As a mother of now grown children, I appreciated both facets of President Obama’s address at the memorial service at the University of Arizona: healing eloquence and choking silence. He framed a vision for bringing us together with his words and made us feel the unspeakability of it all with one long telling minute near the end of the speech when he simply could not continue.

As a teacher educator, I’m left wondering how we ready our aspirants for moments like this. How do we teach future teachers to value both words and silence? How do we enable and encourage them to be present to tragedy in the lives of their students without being felled by it? How do future teachers learn to respond – always as educators – so that their students grow in mind and heart and action?

Today I have ideas but no concrete answers to these questions -- except to say this: teacher education must always remain education. Technical training and a professional knowledge base, though necessary, are not a sufficient basis for becoming an educator. The Mesa Verde teachers responding to Christina Green’s friends and schoolmates this week will draw on more than “professional development.” They will do with their students just what President Obama called on all Americans to do: “to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.” This is growth; this is education.

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