Teaching tragedy

It seems like a lifetime ago.  I was in my tenth year of teaching high school physics and the school year had practically just begun.  I was in a new father fog, having just brought home my newborn daughter weeks earlier.  Looking back, it almost seems like my days were twenty-five hours long with the mix of midnight feedings and the sleepless panic of a new world of expectations and responsibilities.  In a way, school became a refuge.  In my job, I mostly faced problems that could be solved with a few equations of motion developed centuries ago.  Unlike the problems and situations I mulled through my head every sleepless night, the problems I tackled in class always had clear-cut answers.  While we as a class delved into our problems, the school bells would interrupt the day and let us know when it was time to switch classes, head to the bathroom or go to lunch.  With the chaos of my nights as a new father, I appreciated the regiment of my days.

But then, one day in early September, the planes came and downed several buildings in New York City and Washington DC.  And I stood alone in front of the class and I didn’t have answers.  Any lesson plans I had for the day were useless.  That day, I was teaching tragedy instead of physics.

With the recent incidents around the globe, I’ve been reminded of that day.  On Facebook, my teacher friends have been discussing how they spent their recent classes and whether the topics of Beirut or Paris have come up.  In reading their posts, there is one thing that is clear:  these are complex problems that are not easily discussed.  Despite the landscape of curt memes and witty political retorts being shared on social media, these problems don’t have easy solutions.  And they don’t have easily identifiable causes.  Some people are choosing to blame certain religions, political parties, government leaders or larger economic and environmental forces, but that’s oversimplifying things.  Besides, I’m not a political scientist or an economic expert.  I’m an educator.  Despite our backgrounds, sometimes teachers are enlisted to teach tragedy.  Even when we don’t want to answer, tragedy comes knocking.

When I think back to that September morning and to the worried high school students that I had in my classroom, I think I did okay in my role as a teacher that day.  While not much physics was taught that day, I worked to calm my students’ fears.  I also communicated the power they had as individuals to make the world a better place and how their roles were critical for instituting change.  If the tragedy conversation were to come up today, I’d probably have better language to discuss it.  I’d bring in the concepts of fixed and growth mindset and how each of us can either accept the world as it is or work to make the world as we want it to be.  Concepts like freedom and safety and equality are social constructs that aren’t fixed in time.  They require work and dedication to develop and maintain.  Adopting a growth mindset isn’t just applicable for working with students or training athletes or fostering more positive relationships.  It’s applicable to the world around us and to the larger concepts that we hold dear in our society.  Adopting a growth mindset means that you have to practice to get things right.  That means we have to practice freedom and safety and equality and respect.  Everyday.  Despite tragedies.  Despite chaos.  Despite the conversations the run counter to these concepts.

I could certainly be accused of oversimplifying really complex societal issues in this post.  But I’m an educator and I see the growth mindset being integral in everything we do.  Sure, it may be a simple way of seeing the world but the next time I’m enlisted to teach tragedy, that’s the lesson I’ll choose to teach.


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