Empathy, Dialogue and Trust: Talking About School Shootings With Our Students

Doug Hecklinger and Renee Dinnerstein in conversation

In the 1950’s, when I attended public school, it was a short time after WWII. The United States was in the midst of the Cold War with the USSR. I remember periodic shelter drills, when we would scrunch under our desks, pretending that we were being bombed. These shelter drills seemed to me like  strange and scary play activites.

 

 

 

When I began teaching in 1968 we had similar drills. Teachers took the children into the hallway, warned them to be silent, and instructed them to sit on the floor. As a new teacher, I was annoyed by the waste of time and for the possibility of frightening children. 

 

 

 

Now, in 2022, there’s an unfortunate and harsh reality to shelter drills. They are truly necessary and more tied to reality than they ever should be. However, it’s no longer a bomb that threatens school children. It is a threat from within our own society. It is the reality of someone entering a school building carrying rifles and assault weapons. 

How does this threat affect teachers, children and families?

Today I spoke with Doug Hecklinger, a dedicated and thoughtful fourth grade teacher at P.S. 295, a New York City public school. He had some very important suggestions for teachers and families.

I hope that you will share your ideas with our community by commenting on the blog. This is a serious conversation that truly and sadly cannot be avoided.

13 thoughts on “Empathy, Dialogue and Trust: Talking About School Shootings With Our Students

  1. Renee Post author

    It was such an inspiring experience having this conversation with Doug. He’s the teacher we all would like to have for our children.

    Reply
  2. Nakoley Renville

    What touched me about this particular post is the loving attention to children’s hearts and their minds. We are living in a very scary time. I agree that we have to add value to teaching that ALWAYS includes, love, support, empathy and courage. Without these things, teaching is just an empty profession that will not serve our children well! Kudos to Doug for teaching with his head, heart and hands!❤️

    Reply
    1. Renee Post author

      Thank you Nakoley. When you were a school principali know that you shared these values with your school community.♥️

      Reply
  3. Livia

    Doug is providing a safe space for his students, in a time when the world doesn’t feel safe.
    Children are very much aware of what is going on in the world, and being able to express their thoughts and feelings is crucial to their growth and sense of well being.
    “What’s In Your News?” is a wonderful format which gives the children a chance to voice what they are holding in their hearts and minds. Through Doug’s careful guidance they are able to express themselves, and the entire class benefits, since chances are that most of the topics are familiar to other students as well.
    Students are able to realize that they are not alone in what they are feeling and experiencing.
    It is so important for children to get the correct information about an issue or topic. Some children don’t have adults in their lives who actually talk with them, and discuss feelings, etc. Their views need to be validated and in this sort of forum, in which a sense of community has been established, their voice can be heard.
    I wonder about confidentiality. As Doug mentioned, sometimes children will speak about a delicate subject, such as substance abuse. In this case, as in others as well, that are of a more personal nature, are ground rules discussed beforehand about how the sharing circle is a safe space that is confidential? How are personal details handled? I would think that a solid sense of trust would need to be established in the classroom, to foster confidentiality. Are students able to maintain confidentiality, especially if delicate family matters are brought up? It appears that Doug is quite efficient in guiding the conversation and anticipating comments that may arise, but what happens if a child shares a personal experience (divorce, marital discord, substance abuse or any other type of abuse, etc.) ?
    I also see this as an opportunity for the teacher to ascertain if a student would benefit from some form of counseling.
    Doug it is quite obvious that you care about your students and listen to them. They are fortunate to have such a kind teacher, who respects them and respects their views. A teacher who is aware of the value of teaching life skills, along with academic subjects. Thank you.

    Reply
    1. Renee Post author

      Thank you Livia. Your point about confidentiality is a good one. I’ll ask Doug if he can post a response to you. Thank you for all of your thoughts.

      Reply
  4. Livia

    Renee your comments about shelter drills as a child rang true with me as well. I remember getting under my desk in my early years of elementary school. However, at that time, I didn’t know the purpose of these drills. They were just a 5 minute break from our schoolwork.

    These days children know why they are having shelter drills.
    As a student, I loved our fire drills. A few minutes outside in the fresh air was a welcome event.
    As a teacher, my fondness for fire drills diminished. They were now an interruption to our work and a sometimes stressful period of making sure all of my students were accounted for, and were on good behavior during the drill. However, I never found them to have an emotional impact upon me.

    Shelter drills however, brought up different feelings. The sight of children huddled in a corner of our classroom in silence or lined up in the corridors, facing the wall in silence, and seeing this scenario the whole length of the corridor, unsettled me. I can only imagine what my students were thinking, given the fact that unlike me as a child, they KNEW why we were doing this.

    I’d like to share a personal aspect as well. When 9/11 happened, my daughters were in middle school. Years later, when one of my daughters was an adult, she confided in me that she felt her childhood ended when 9/11 happened.
    My heart goes out to the students of today…..and sends them wishes for healing…..and for holding on to their childhood as best they can.
    I know that teachers who are caring will try their best to see that these children learn how to continue to embrace joy and continue to trust in others and the world.

    Reply
    1. Renee Post author

      Livia, my breath stopped for a brief second when I read about your daughter’s sharing with you how her childhood stopped after 9/11.

      Reply
  5. William Fulbrecht

    Thank you both for this wonderful and impactful conversation. Doug reminds us of the enormous responsibility a teacher has the moment they walk through the classroom door. So often the demands of the curriculum take precedence over the essential work of establishing a safe learning environment and building a strong classroom community. He also reminds us that this work needn’t be complicated. Acknowledging each child’s humanity and providing space for children to acknowledge each other’s humanity should come naturally. Given the space Doug has created, his students’ responses to the tragedy in Uvalde are not surprising, after all, Salvador Ramos is a child himself.

    Reply
    1. Renee Post author

      This is so well=said Bill. It’s the time and space that Doug created, knowing how important it is for his classroom community, that stands out to me.

      Reply
  6. connie Norgren

    Watching and hearing this conversation made me hopeful about our ravaged world. As long as there are
    adults-teachers-mentors – guides who take their responsibility to children
    as seriously and thoughtfully as Doug clearly does we all have a chance to grow, to be our best human selves. I learned so much from this conversation about ways to shape talking between people – especially when the subject is difficult. Oh, caring and deeply thoughtful teachers are so important!! Thank you for this and for your years of essential and life giving teachings, Renee.

    Reply
    1. Renee Post author

      Connie, I so agree with you about how Doug and his students give some hope in a time when hope is in short supply.

      Reply
  7. Shelley Grant

    It would be wonderful if all teachers could take time away from required academic subjects to listen to their students’ thoughts and concerns and respond to them in such a reassuring way. It is also gratifying to hear the voices of his students who could empathize with both the families and the shooter. This conversation makes it very clear that providing children with a forum where their thoughts and concerns are considered important is essential to their emotional development.

    Reply
    1. Renee Post author

      Shelley, I agree with you. Perhaps I should make a more concerted effort to share this with administrators. The challenge is to get them to listen!

      Reply

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