NEW YORK — School superintendent Dan Gaetz spent last Tuesday in a whirlwind: reaching out to children in his district's 39 schools, fielding calls from people wanting to help, wondering how soon parents on the nearby military bases in Okaloosa County, Fla., might be called to duty.
The sudden, devastating violence that struck the United States last week forced Mr. Gaetz to draw on every skill he'd learned as an educator - including improvisation. And on Wednesday morning, he got at least one hint that his efforts under pressure may have paid off.
"A girl came up and shook my hand and said, 'Thank you for keeping school open,' " he says. She continued: "I know everything will be OK, because I'm coming to school today."
Repeated school shootings have forced educators to stockpile tools for dealing with student and community fears. But the scope of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington created unprecedented uncertainty.
"There is no template to apply to this situation," Gaetz says. "Do we go back and dust off reflections of educators from the day after Pearl Harbor?"
As it turns out, they did something close, seeking out moments to do what their job demands: Teach.
Quick on the heels of offering whatever comfort they could, they began to impart important lessons in everything from being helpful to avoiding stereotypes.
At first, of course, teachers faced immediate challenges: tracking down parents who were traveling or working at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, reassuring parents who came to school to pick up children. Some confronted the surreal: Middle-schoolers in Indianapolis, for example, couldn't distinguish at first between the towers collapsing on TV and the planned implosion of a city arena they had witnessed in June. In other classrooms, too, teachers had to explain to kids that what they had witnessed on television was not in any way "cool."
Many teachers found themselves in the uncomfortable position of not having all the answers for their young charges.
For Rachel Henighan, who teaches at Stoddert Elementary School in Washington, D.C., the week yielded difficult lessons about the extent to which she can keep everything under control.
"You can usually answer all their questions, you can usually straighten things out," she says. "And you don't know, and you can't. It's not that it undermines their certainty in you, but it just makes it that much harder for a kid to cope with it, because somebody who usually can explain, can't."
Still, many teachers have worked hard to give children a sense of certainty and to teach them that even small gestures can be helpful.
On Wednesday, schools in Washington and New York were closed. But across the country at the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, Calif., near Los Angeles, principal Nancy Whitson tried to set an example by purposefully engaging students.
Later, she says, students may explore the issue more academically. But her first step was to allow kids to talk with teachers and counselors about concerns. They also turned to writing letters of condolence and raising money for disaster relief.
Such efforts got under way rapidly in many schools. Kindergartners in Oklahoma City who were studying "friendship" for the week also drew pictures for the relief workers in New York. Two young sisters in Reno, Nev., started a penny drive for the Red Cross at their school.
In Okaloosa County, where community members reached out by carpeting school lawns with small US flags, Mr. Gaetz said it wasn't too early to capitalize on "teachable moments." Wednesday was Literacy Day, and he marked it by putting the local paper, with full coverage of the attacks, in the hands of all 30,000 district students. Some adults expressed reservations about confronting kids so bluntly. But that day, more than ever, he said, it was important for students to strive to understand what was happening.
"By talking about things in the classroom, we could teach about the values of a free society and our commitment to never bow to terror," he says. "It's an opportunity for us, in a community like ours, to explain the moral differences that parents and spouses fight for. It's a timely ... tool to try to understand the events, to quell rumors, and to teach."
The move in recent years toward putting TVs in classrooms meant that many students watched events unfold in searingly real live time. But particularly at the elementary level, the news was avoided for as long as possible. Joan Hammerle, who teaches at a K-2 public elementary school in a New Jersey suburb close to Manhattan, says teachers talked in code, and some districts in her area took down their computer servers to prevent access to the Internet. In Dallas, Brenda Bradford, who in 1986 had to explain the Challenger explosion to students, expressed concern that the saturation coverage could be harmful - but she couldn't help but keep a muted TV on in her classroom.
Indeed, some experts have cautioned parents and schools to limit kids' exposure to TV.
"One of the terrible things done to children here with the [Oklahoma City] bombing was that picture of the Murrah Building that played for hours and hours," says Jim Allen, a professor of psychology at the Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center.
But helping students cope with such tragic images is not the only task teachers will face in weeks to come. Some young people are already pondering America's military response.
"The seniors are scared because they're thinking [of the] draft, and they understand the severity of the situation," says Robert Anderson, an English teacher at Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, N.Y., which borders Queens. "They're petrified."
Sibhan Bailey, an 11th-grader at Townview Magnet Center in Dallas, says she feels safe, but adds, "I'm not sure, because a lot of my friends are talking about going to war."
Teachers are concerned about anger being directed toward classmates of Arabic or Islamic background. Indeed, Muslims increasingly focused on safety as last week progressed. Islamic educators in Houston closed for the week to consider additional security measures. A high school sophomore in Texas was pushed around by classmates who told him, "Your family did this," while another Texan wearing a head scarf was told by campus police to leave school for her safety.
School leaders, and many students themselves, are countering such actions with messages of tolerance. Even as Gaetz was talking with his daughter about the wrongful internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, for example, and reminding her to reassure an Islamic classmate, students at North Dallas High School held a tolerance rally to show that if teenagers representing 32 countries could get along, adults could as well.
"Right now, a common theme is unity," Mr. Anderson says, noting that his suburban New York school is like a United Nations. "[Wednesday], I pointed at the American flag and said, 'One thing we have to keep in mind is this is our roof.'... I think most of the teachers are trying to say that no matter what the person next to you looks like, they're not responsible for what went on.... The only way to defeat the enemy is ... a united front."
At boarding schools where students have links to New York and Washington, educators have faced the double task of being teacher and parents. "We have students from areas where there are concerns about retaliation, and individuals have parents in other countries and have concerns about their safety," says Randy Stevens, dean of student life at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Northfield, Mass., which enrolls students from dozens of countries.
The school held nondenominational services and two school meetings. Later on, teachers may address everything from terrorism to Islam through speakers or special programs.
Teachers' organizations are also trying to help schools ensure that students understand the attacks in the context of history and international relations. The National Council of the Social Studies, for example, has posted lesson plans and discussion guidelines on its website, along with suggestions from other educators. It also provides links to other sources of information.
A steady drumbeat of education about people from different backgrounds can be very helpful to kids, says Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director for the National Association of School Psychologists in Bethesda, Md. (see website review, page 16). He hopes teachers will focus on instances of heroism and philanthropy. "There are stories in all of this that can be pointed to as exemplifying the most noble of the human spirit," he says. "Kids need to be helped to see that, too."
Staff writers Gloria Goodale, Amelia Newcomb, Stacy A. Teicher, and Mary Wiltenburg contributed to this report.