Teaching During a Crisis — September 11, 2001 Edition

“Awww,” my sophomore class complained as I turned off the TV that was mounted in the corner of our classroom. “You can’t just turn it off now!”

I never even had the TV on in my classroom — not even before or after class. I didn’t even know what stations we could get on it. But that morning, as I was on the exit to get off the Turnpike and drive into the high school I taught at one exit outside of Boulder, Colorado, the KBCO Morning Show had gone through the two minutes of news that was interspersed with music and ads and then said, “Oh, and this just in. An airplane just hit the World Trade Center.”

“Probably some idiot in a Cessna,” I’d thought, since every other plane/building collision I’d ever heard of involved a small, private plane whose pilot had a heart attack or something. Then, once I was in my classroom, a student who often hung out in my room before class started and had also heard about the plane, had asked to turn on the news. I’d broken my “no TV” norm and said, “Oh, yeah, wasn’t there something about a plane? Turn it on.”

The news was playing as students trickled in, and then as the bell rang at 7:45. The people stuck in the newsroom and not out on stories were covering the plane crash, but there wasn’t much to tell. They kept repeating the same information: A plane had hit the World Trade Center. They didn’t know what kind. They didn’t know how or why. They would provide updates the minute they got them. Here is a map showing where New York City is. Here’s a stock photo of the World Trade Center. I turned the news off.

As I turned the news off, one of my students complained, “But this is important.”

I answered that the news was so new that there wasn’t anything to report yet, and that we’d just have to wait until later to get the details.

I turned off the TV at about 7:47 Mountain Time. For me, this was two minutes later than I usually started class. I remember kicking myself for putzing around and being somewhat slow about getting class started.

7:47 Mountain Time was 9:47 Eastern time. Although the second plane had hit the North World Trade Center at 9:03 Eastern Time, the footage of the second plane did not play on Colorado news stations until about 7:50. Students who had teachers who were not as vigilant as I was about starting class exactly on time (or two minutes late on “slow” days) saw the live footage of the second plane plowing into the North World Trade Center. In my Advanced World Literature class, we started Socratic Seminars about common themes in mythology.

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That term, I had planning periods second and third period, so I saw the footage playing in the cafeteria when I went to check my office mailbox.

It was a strange day. In Colorado, we were seeing it live, looped on video screens throughout the building, but we were also 1700 miles away. As an attack on our country, it felt close and immediate. But it was also far away and there was no way to help the people in New York in that moment.

And there was so much we didn’t know. Were there other planes? Would they hit other cities? This was clearly an intentional attack, but who was doing this? What else would happen?

In fourth period, I opened up discussion about it with my Language Arts 9 class. Some people knew someone in New York and were concerned about them. Someone’s parent was supposed to fly out of DIA that day, but now all flights were grounded. Some students were worried about whether we were being attacked. One student asked where New York City was.

Fifth period was another Advanced World Literature class. They had seen the news during earlier classes, whereas I had not, so I got most of my information from them. Looking back, I’m amazed by the prescience of their questions. They were asking what information was on those bits of paper that made the streets look like confetti. And what would happen to that information? They described the buildings crashing into a billowing cloud of dust that moved like a wave through the New York City streets. I hadn’t believed them. I mean, I believed that was what it must have looked like on the news. But I told them about taking an elevator to the top of one of the World Trade Center buildings when my family was on vacation in 1986. Those buildings were like our high school, with more than double the footprint, and then with about 51 of our our two-story high schools stacked on top of each other. I said to look around our building — there is STUFF in a building — glass, rebar, bricks, concrete, desks. . . It doesn’t all just collapse into a wave of dust. They swore that it had and then asked what was in the dust. People were breathing that dust. What would happen to those people’s lungs? To their health? Would there be long-term effects on the paramedics and firefighters rushing into those buildings? Would those workers ever be able to work in a skyscraper, or in a city, again? Later that evening, when I went to a friend’s house to watch the news with her because I didn’t want to watch it alone, I found that the news re-hashed everything 5th period had told me. They’d summarized over an hour of coverage in about 20 minutes. “It’s like you have your own research team,” my neighbor said. Sometimes that’s one of the few perks of being a teacher.

Lunch, and then the day shifted again. Students reached their saturation points. Their eyes were glazed and they looked tired. They were talked out. I asked 6th period Language Arts 9 and the mostly juniors and seniors in my 7th period Creative Writing class if they wanted to talk about what happened. They mostly said, “Why don’t you just give us the assignment?” They wanted work to do — something to take their minds off what was going on outside our school walls. I had to adjust assignments to ensure they would keep students busy, but not be too stressful.

What can we learn from that day nineteen years later?

Teaching is always about managing the unexpected. Some days the unexpected event is planes getting flown into the World Trade Center. Other days, it is the student who looks ready to burst into tears. Every day we need to adjust. We are always walking the tightrope between having a plan and adapting the plan. Now that I teach Classroom Management, it is one of the first topics we discuss because it is so foundational to what we do as teachers.

Our classrooms are porous. The outside world affects what happens in our classrooms. It’s always adding contexts and needs that we need to respond to.

Sometimes we need to alter our plans to prioritize safety. That can be as immediate as changing procedures to keep students safe from viral infections. Other times the threat might feel more distant, but still affect our students’ perceptions of safety.

Safety also means emotional safety. Sometimes we need to take a step back from the curriculum and help students process their feelings about what is going on.

Responding to students’ needs can change over time. On 9/11/01, students’ needs changed from wanting to to see it, to wanting to talk about it, to NOT wanting to talk about it. We need to know when to pause and create space, when to move forward with content, and even when to create distractions or other outlets.

Sometimes the most important thing you can do is to do your job. When an emergency happens, we want to go running to the event and respond to the people we see and their immediate needs. Some of us want to be the heroes running into the building. But sometimes the the best thing we can do is stay where we are and take care of the people we’re with. On 9/11/01, I had to be there for my students and help create a stable environment that helped them feel secure. This isn’t glamorous, and no one will make a Hollywood movie about it. But maintaining stability and responding to the needs of our students is job #1 for those of us who teach.

We’re in a different world now.

When I was telling a high school student this story a year and a half ago, he commented that turning off the TV during first period and proceeding with the lesson could never happen now. Now, students would just pull out their smartphones and get the news anyway. I’m not sorry that my students didn’t see the second plane hit the North World Trade Center live. We all saw endless replays in the days, weeks, and years that followed. Maybe some of my students felt like they’d missed out, but what had they really missed out on that we couldn’t get later that day? I’m glad we all got the news a bit after it happened, after people started having time to process what was going on.

I never did turn on the news during class. Instead, we took time to discuss what was going on and make meaning of it. After all of the students had already seen the plane crash half a dozen times, they needed to talk. They needed to get out of the immediate reaction and its fight or flight mode and discuss what had happened and what it meant for us. Isn’t that our job as teachers? In an age of 24–7 news cycles flowing through our phones every minute, taking time together to discuss, hear each others’ perspectives, and create meaning is more important than ever.

What does it mean for our classrooms when people are getting up-to-the-minute news 24–7, and are reading it out during our classes? It can be useful, and it’s also addictive. How do we focus and sustain attention when a student in the class announces which celebrity died in the middle of a class discussion about something else? What does it mean when we and our students are constantly being bombarded with “breaking news” about events that we can’t help people with directly, or that are too far away for an immediate response from us? Add to that our texts, phone messages, feeds, and we’re all having a hard time focusing on sustaining our attention and on talking with the people we’re with right now. This creates new challenges for teachers as we work to provide a stable environment where our students feel both physically and emotionally safe.

Even my college students have grown up in a post-9/11/01 world.

As I was driving to my high school that day, when I’d first heard about a plane hitting the World Trade Center, I’d assumed it must be an accident with a private aircraft. That had always been the case in the past. I was still living in a world in which terrorists don’t fly planes full of civilians into buildings full of civilians.

People now ask how I could have turned off the TV during first period, and I try to explain this. It never once occurred to me that the first plane’s hitting the South World Trade Center was anything other than an accident. It certainly didn’t occur to me that other planes would hit other buildings. Before that morning, we all lived in a world where that wasn’t within the realm of what most of us could imagine.

Now the people who were born that year are nineteen. My college students have grown up in a world where this possibility was always a given. They live in a world where, when a plane hits a building, they think “terrorism,” not “accident.” They have grown up in a world of Travel Advisories, Amber Alerts, and Active Shooter Drills. They are always on high alert. The world is full of risks and warnings. This generation was born into crisis and has grown up amid crisis.

This term, they’re entering our classrooms after reporting their health symptoms on an app, wearing a mask, washing their hands, and staying six feet apart. Or they’re logging in and we’re talking to thumbnail videos of each other over Zoom, straining to hear through the microphones on their phones or when their internet freezes.

Perhaps, especially now, we teachers need to do what we know how to do. We need to focus on physical safety and emotional safety, on maintaining stability in an unstable world, and on helping our students discuss the alerts on their phones so we can all work together to make meaning of it all.

Written by

Suzie Null is a former middle and high school teacher and current professor of Teacher Education. Follow her on Twitter at WritingontheWall @NullSet16

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