Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Tragedies and Calamities, and How They Affect My Classroom

Azira isn’t a talkative girl, but she isn’t particularly quiet either. I realised that something must be wrong when she didn’t seem to be interested in whatever that was happening in the class. She didn’t seem to care when Alauddin took her pencil, or when Shameer deliberately spilled some water on her book. She didn’t join the class in laughter when I told one of my silly jokes. She didn’t speak. She didn’t write. She didn’t want to do her work. She was unusually passive today. She looked weary. At first I thought she must be feeling a bit under the weather.

While the students were busy doing the work that I had assigned to them, I went to the back of the room to arrange some books on the shelf. I looked at Azira. Her book was open, and her pencil was in her hand. But she wasn’t writing. She was staring at the door, as if deep in thought. I dropped some books on the floor and pretended that I needed help. “Ooops! Azira, would you come here and help me, please?”

Azira rose from her seat, and obediently came to me. I asked her to help me with the books. We chatted for a bit. Then I asked her if she’s alright. Suddenly, she broke out in tears. I held her tight. After much coaxing, she was finally able to tell me that her grandfather had passed away two days ago. Grandpa died in my arms, teacher. Azira told me in between sobs. Oh dear, I’m so sorry. What happened? Grandpa was sick, teacher. Very, very sick. He was coughing a lot and there was blood everywhere.

The little girl was shaking. She was sobbing uncontrollably. She was traumatised and grief-stricken.

“Teacher, I don’t want you to die”

As the winner of the 2014 Onestopenglish IATEFLscholarship, I was given the opportunity to fly to Harrogate, United Kingdom to attend the 48th IATEFL conference in April this year. I told my students about it a few days before I made the trip.

“You wouldn’t be seeing me for about ten days,” I said. “Cikgu Martang will be taking over my classes, but make sure you do all the work that I ask you to do.”

The children were, of course, more elated about the trip than about the assignments that I had left for them.

“You’re going to the UK? Wow! Would you be seeing David Beckham?”
“Teacher, don’t forget to bring back some souvenirs for us.”
“Take a lot of pictures!”
“Can I come with you? I want to see the London Bridge.”

Hahaha! I laughed. The children laughed, too.

“Teacher, please don’t go.”

I stopped laughing. I turned towards her. “You don’t want me to go the UK?”

Izatti shook her head, slowly. “No.”

“Oh. But why?”

“That missing plane...” Izatti stammered. “MH370...”

Ah. Now I understood.

“Teacher,” Izatti pleaded. “I don’t want you to die.”

It’s a rough year

2014 is a rough year. Stories about wars, calamities, natural disasters, deaths, tragedies involving airplanes and many more tragic incidents are all over the news. I watch all these terrible and horrifying news on TV, and my heart is broken.

The children watch, too.

I’m not a psychologist, but my few years of experience as a primary school teacher have taught me that children don’t channel their negative feelings in the same way that we adults do. With the exceptions of a few who are blessed with maturity that is beyond their years, most primary school children that I’ve worked with do not have the ability to express their emotions clearly and articulately. But that doesn’t mean that they’re immune to heartaches and trauma. Children are more sensitive, more delicate and more empathetic than adults. It would make sense if they’re more deeply affected by tragedies and disasters.

Honestly, I didn’t realise how much the news about the missing plane affect Izatti until I talked with her father recently – months after the incident. I learned that Izatti had had some bad dreams for a few nights while I was in the UK. She would wake up in the middle of the night, crying and worrying about her favourite English teacher. She was so afraid that something bad would happen to my plane – just like MH370 or MH17 (and recently AirAsia QZ8501), that I would never come back to Kunak and that she would never be able to see me again.

As 2014 is coming to a close, I try to reflect on my classroom practices throughout the year. I try to recall if I have ever done anything in my classes that deal with all the traumatic tragedies and incidents that my students are exposed to. Have I ever asked my students how they feel about what they’ve seen on TV? Have I ever tried to find out how those tragedies affect them? Have I ever showed that I care?

Dealing with tragedies

My experience with Izatti and Azira made me think. I started questioning how many more of my students are suffering emotionally without me realising it. My students don’t talk openly about how the loss of (or the possibility of losing) a loved one affects them. Maybe they talk about it with their friends, I don’t know. But they certainly don’t talk about it with me very often. Azira was one of the very few students whom I managed to persuade into opening up and sharing her emotions with me.

It isn't my territory, I know. I don’t receive any specialised training in children counselling. Some people say it’s best to leave the matter to the experts, like the school counsellor or the religious teacher for instance. I wouldn't disagree with that. However, as a classroom teacher, I have to make connections with my students. I need to know my students’ problems and understand them well. I need to provide them with the support that they need. It is necessary if I were to do my job effectively. I certainly can’t teach a student well if he or she is struggling with something inside. My students can’t learn if they have to be distracted by something that takes away their focus on learning.

Maybe I don’t have the expertise to provide my students with professional counselling, but getting them to talk about things that are weighing them down would definitely help.

“I feel lighter”

Sometime in the middle of this year, there was a big fire in Kunak that had destroyed over a hundred houses and affected more than 50 families. One student in my class was affected, too. The school did its best to support our students who were affected. We raised funds. We donated clothes, food, school supplies and other necessities. Because of the sad tragedy, my student had to be absent from school for a few days.

When he came back to school, everything was normal again. It seemed to be so, on the surface at least. He was back in class, participating in lessons, doing his homework as usual. We had helped him and his family, hadn't we? We had helped lighten his family’s burdens in some way. He was doing okay. Or was he?

He smiled. “Hey, teacher. What’s up?”
“How are you?”
“I’m fine, thank you.” (The ‘standard’ SKK2-student answer).
“I’m sorry about what happened.”

He was quiet for a few seconds. “You've got time, teacher? Can we talk?”

It wasn't a long conversation; it probably took just about 5 to 10 minutes. He talked about the night when his house was on fire. He told me how his father took his mother and siblings out of the house, and how he had to leave his favourite badminton racquet behind.

“Sorry, teacher.”
“There’s nothing to apologise for. I’m glad you want to share all these with me.”
He stared at me straight in the eye, with an amused look on his face.
“You know what?
“I feel lighter.”

I believe that it is important for me to help my student to relieve some of his sadness and grief by expressing his feelings, but I need to be extra tactful. Feelings are delicate matter. Some children might not want to go back and revisit the traumatic incidents that they've experienced, and I must respect them. I must never force them to talk if they don’t want to. But I think it is also important for me to let the children know that if they ever need someone to talk to, I’m here for them – and I’m all ears.

Writing about it

Some children prefer to write about their feelings rather than talk about them. When I first started to encourage my students to keep a journal, I didn’t expect that it would become a channel for them to vent out their anxieties and fears and worries. I just wanted to encourage them to write so that they can improve their English.

Keeping the journals has helped the students to improve their English (and I’ll write more about it in the next post). But the benefits are more than that. In addition to helping my students to learn how to reflect, it helps them to express their feelings and give them the courage to deal with the situations that they have to face. It has taught me a lot, too. My students’ writings have helped me to know my students better, and they have brought us closer than ever. I no longer see my students as just a bunch of children sitting in a classroom. My students’ journals have changed me both as a teacher and also as a person. But more on these in the next post.

My students' portfolios, where they keep their weekly journals

With my students at the end of the school year. They're showing off their journal portfolios.

Teaching empathy

My heart goes out to all the victims of the terrible flood that swept over the east coast of peninsular Malaysia recently. I can’t imagine what the victims must be going through. They’re in my thoughts and prayers a lot, especially the children. I imagine if they were my students. If I were their teacher, what kind of emotional support would I give to these children when they come back to school in January?

Since the area where I teach is not affected by the flood, how would my students deal with what they’ve seen about the tragedy in the news? Are they affected emotionally? Does it make them scared or worried? Do the sufferings of other people living far from them touch them in any way?

Tragedies are unfortunate and heartbreaking, yet I also realise that they can provide opportunities to teach empathy to children. What can we do to alleviate the sufferings and pains of other people? What kind of help can we offer?

We can donate money and stuffs. We can raise funds. We can send postcards and letters to make the victims or their family members feel supported and comforted. We can make posters to create awareness. We can pray for the suffering people, together. I guess it doesn’t take an expert to tell you that helping people always results in happiness, both to the ones being helped and to the ones who help. In most cases, the joy is more in abundance to the ones who help.

I’m no expert in children’s psychology, far far far from it. However, there are always some little things that I can do as a teacher. I can help children to deal with their trauma by showing them how to channel their anxieties to productive activities that can make them feel useful. There’s nothing that can beat the feeling that comes when you know you’re easing someone else’s burdens. Try to do that in your class or with your children, and look at their proud and joyful faces. What satisfaction it brings. How relieved they look. How triumphant they feel. If you’ve done it before, I’m sure you’ll know what I mean.  

It’s unavoidable, and they’re part of it

As an adult, I’m often too absorbed in my (pitiful) ‘adult’ way of thinking and feeling. I often make the mistake of thinking that tragedies and calamities are ‘adult thing,’ and I don’t discuss those subjects with children very often. I tend to forget that children watch everything, they heard everything. They see it on TV. They read the news. They listen to adults’ discussion about it, though they’re not often invited to take part in it. They’re traumatised as much as adults, maybe even more.

Sometimes children in my classes are themselves the victims of tragedies and calamities. Sometimes unfortunate things strike them directly. As a school teacher, I sometimes take it for granted that the emotional needs of the children affected by tragedies are well-taken care of by their parents and families. I don’t consider providing emotional support for children who have undergone traumatic experiences as my responsibility, simply because I’m not an expert in the field. It isn’t my duty. I should leave it to those who know how to handle it better, like the school counsellor for example.

But I also learn through my limited experiences that children don’t care whether I’m an expert or not. All they care about is that they trust me. They don’t run to an expert for emotional support. They run to people whom they trust.

After all, I don’t need to be an expert in order to lend my ears and empathise. I just need to love. And to care, genuinely.

“Learning is a result of listening, which in turn leads to even better listening and attentiveness to the other person. In other words, to learn from the child we must have empathy, and empathy grows as we learn.” – Alice Miller

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