Life is hard. Bad things happen. Life isn’t always fair. Bad things can happen to good people. Everyone must die. One must continue to live even after those we love, die.
These are some harsh truths about life. But how often do we engage with them in the context of formal education? If education is truly to be preparation for life, how is it that we skirt around these grim and serious matters that have repercussions for our mental health and overall wellbeing?
I remember when I was a teacher for a brief period several years ago, a class 11 student who didn’t belong to our school, met with a bike accident and died on the spot. He was the son of a famous celebrity in the city and several of his friends were in my English class. The students were visibly upset. Some huddled in groups with tear-stained faces and some chose to skip school for a week or so. While we teachers respected their emotions and chose to give space to the students, we also went about our business as usual and were not aware of how to engage with them at such a time of personal tragedy.
I often think back to that time and regret my unpreparedness for being more emotionally available to the students. What could I have done better in that situation? Would it have helped if the school counsellor would have gotten involved? Would it have helped if the school had a policy on such matters so that teachers would know if it was all right to engage with the students at a time like this? Or some guidance on how to?
Why are levels of unpreparedness for tragedies so high?
When tragedies strike, forget larger institutions, most individuals and families also find themselves unprepared or underprepared. This largely has to do with psychological hurdles that humans are predisposed to when it comes to being prepared for calamities or tragedies (one such being the optimism bias that is explained below). Especially in the Indian context, there is also the convention of not dwelling on or talking about unpleasant possibilities for fear of making them come true. However, this lack of acknowledgment of the possibility of tragedies makes it much harder to cope when one is actually confronted with them.
Unfortunately, the attitude of ‘it didn’t happen to us, so don’t bother’ when tragedies take place at the national or international level foster both an attitude of apathy and also ignores the fact that children may still feel impacted by the information or details shared in news and media coverage about tragedies, wars, or calamities.
The pandemic, however, was one such event that impacted nearly all of humanity on Earth and through the lockdowns in particular, people realized the importance of being prepared for such events. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic becoming endemic, the cycle of ‘panic and neglect’ is what we have entered into, which is typical of pandemic crises, in which measures for preventing or preparing for future pandemics remain deficient.
A key factor for schools remaining unprepared for tragic events is the pressures of daily school life. Schools and teachers are governed by the academic year. The struggle of completing the syllabus and ensuring that students have learned the concepts well is real. In addition, there are other milestone events in the year such as the sports or annual day events. A tragedy, whether personal or public, is capable of derailing this carefully crafted annual plan. However, there are always other things that take priority over preparing for a tragedy and hence this planning and preparation hardly ever get prioritized.
Furthermore, while teachers are trained to plan lessons, manage classrooms, even provide differentiated instruction, and assess students, they are not trained in mental health or to provide support to students through traumatic events. This responsibility would come within the purview of school counsellors. However, the problem on the ground is that the ratio is usually one school counsellor to hundreds of students. This means that a large majority of students may remain uncatered in times of crisis and it becomes incumbent upon the teachers to help students through such situations.
Why is it important to be prepared for tragedies, both at an individual and institutional level?
As mentioned above, human beings often operate under the optimism bias (one of several cognitive biases that humans are predisposed towards) that leads them to believe that they are less likely to suffer from negative events. An organization is after all a collection of people and may also operate on the basis of this same bias.
However, there are tragedies taking place around us at any given moment. There could be deaths in people’s families, neighbourhoods, or in public life. Each of these could impact different people in varying capacities. Large-scale tragic events can also strike at any moment, ranging from natural or human-made calamities, wars, or pandemics as we witnessed in the very recent past. It hence makes sense for organizations such as schools, which are dedicated to the nurturing of human beings, to spend sufficient time and energy being prepared for tragedies.
As already hinted, children and young adults process information and understand the magnitude of situations differently than adults. Print news and especially television news is often sensationalized to a great extent and are geared towards generating fear. Children also have a tendency to generalize from specific events and think that they too are at danger. They may also use partial information or rumours to build their own stories which they may share with each other. They also have a different understanding of death and take things more literally. All in all, they are a lot more psychologically vulnerable than adults when it comes to tragedies.
Children may experience shock, disbelief, confusion, fear, shame, grief, or loss and may react in different ways such as acting out, or becoming silent or unresponsive. It may be difficult for teachers to understand how to deal with children in such times. However, it is imperative that children receive adequate support from parents or teachers on an immediate basis in order to prevent severe damage and post-traumatic stress.
It is also important to remember that it is not only students in schools who need support in times of tragedy but also teachers and staff. Tragedies may be triggering for adults and they might need counselling or active support themselves.
How can schools be better prepared to handle tragedies?
There are various aspects of being prepared for tragedies ranging from logistical/real-world preparation to mental and emotional readiness. However, perhaps it would be more meaningful for the nature of preparation to ideally not remain surface-level but for it to go deep: at the level of organizational culture. Cultivating a culture of kindness, listening, and care is one of the most important things a school can do.
Do schools acknowledge tragedies? What stance does the school leadership have on tragic events? Is there a willingness to have uncomfortable conversations? Are the counsellors and teachers prepared to take on such emotional labour? How much space do children have to express themselves and be themselves without any filtering? What sort of support are they then offered? The consistent pattern found in the answers to such questions can say a lot about how prepared a school is for dealing with tragic events.
Knowing how to manage oneself and others during tragedies is in fact a grossly underrated but extremely crucial life skill. It is a skill that is highly dependent on one’s emotional intelligence and is equally relevant for students as well as adults: parents, teachers, staff, and school management.
It is ideal for schools to have a long-term and short-term approach as well as invest some time in planning to be crisis/tragedy ready. Here are some ideas to consider when working towards building a culture that is able to deal with tragic events and support those who are a part of it:
Focusing on the development of emotional intelligence: People are increasingly realizing the role of emotional intelligence in all aspects of life. The good news is that the skills that emotional intelligence comprises can be cultivated and developed. Attributes such as resilience, patience, and empathy are things people can learn. If they are demonstrated and are a part of the regular culture of an organization, they are more than likely to also surface in tough times when they are most needed.
Allowing different personalities their space: The fascinating part about human nature is the sheer variety it offers through myriad personalities. The problem occurs when we expect others to behave the way we want them to. It is in moments of crises that people’s true nature and traumatic pasts get uncovered. This could lead to some people going into their shells while others becoming excitable. Allowing for space for different personality types or reactions to coexist is critical. It also gives children the two-fold message that it is fine to be who they are and to respect those who are different from them.
Using art and literature as powerful tools: Something as simple as asking younger children to draw what they are feeling or asking older children to journal about their emotions can be extremely therapeutic. Similarly, ensuring that literature that includes stories about the undaunted human spirit is part of libraries and reading lists is important. Whether it is Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl for slightly older children or books like My Yellow Balloon by Tiffany Papageorge or A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret Holmes and Sasha Mudlaff for younger kids, literature is a great tool for understanding what is truly important to the human experience: kindness and hope.
Cultivating a culture of listening: The nature of tragic events is such that they leave us without any answers. It is hard to justify them. So sometimes it is best to just allow people to share how they feel without any follow-up explanations. This is where the art of listening comes to the fore. In fact, hearing things that are positive for the sake of being positive can actually do more harm than good (read: toxic positivity).
Preparing logistics for emergencies: Teachers, staff, and the school management could come together to plan how to be better prepared for a variety of natural disasters or tragedies. This could include things like fire drills, evacuation plans, knowing emergency exits, compiling helpline numbers for the staff, students, or parents for mental health support, and so on. Once compiled, this readiness kit can also be shared with new teachers who join the school.
Working actively on developing the social and emotional skills of teachers and counsellors: While improving the student-to-counsellor ratio is one idea that schools can consider, conducting workshops or book clubs to help their teachers improve their social and emotional skills could prove to be a very valuable investment of time. While the world is waking up to the relevance of SEL (Social-Emotional Learning) now, for those of us who are adults now, this was unfortunately something that was not much of a focus when we were children. Providing counselling for teachers and staff could also come within the purview of such an initiative as teaching anyway involves considerable emotional labour.
Suffering is intrinsic and essential to the human condition. However, as humans, we spend so much time and energy averting our gaze from this truth of existence. For a species that is unique in its ability to engage in ‘prospection’ (or the act of viewing ahead into the future), there is also negligible energy spent on preparing ourselves for tragedies which are intense, concentrated events of suffering.
An exception to this norm are schools of thought such as Buddhism or Stocism*, which believe that the only thing we can control is our attitude when untoward situations occur. The Shakyamuni Buddha was the first to theorize about human suffering in a way that he converted it into a doctrine of the four noble truths while emphasizing acceptance and care for other human beings as a way of life.
While ultimately perhaps it is in philosophy or spirituality that we can seek the best kind of refuge from the heartache that tragedies bring upon us, the most important training that we can impart to the younger generations is that of being kind and hopeful. Schools are places entrusted with the development of young humans in modern society; it is imperative that they focus on the care and development of both the human head and heart, whether in good times or bad.
*This is the school of thought from where the word ‘stoical’ derives; ‘stoical’ is an adjective that describes the attitude of a person as being highly resilient.
The author is based in Pune and is currently pursuing her PhD. in Education from TISS, Mumbai. She has completed her Masters in English from Jadavpur University and Masters in Education (Elementary) from TISS, Mumbai and taught Hindi at Stanford University, California while on a Fulbright fellowship. She is passionate about language, social studies education, human rights, gender, life skills and teacher education in particular. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.