I’ve been thinking a lot about how we welcome students back into our classrooms after they—or we, at times—have made mistakes or have had something serious happen in their lives.
Maybe a student lashed out at you. Maybe they fought another student at the end of your class period. Or maybe they recently lost an immediate relative.
We all know what happened yesterday, or last week, or five minutes ago. Or we hear and see posts on social media, or we overhear students who talk about events that have happened around the building and outside of school. The witnessing of the fight downstairs a few minutes ago has now made its way onto the third floor and, despite not having seen it, it’s all kids are talking about, and then somehow that conversation is resurrected when that student finally returns to school and class.
We don’t just forget.
And we have to acknowledge that. If we simply forgot, then we miss out on opportunities to improve relationships, to signal to students and colleagues that we care, that we are people, and that we are a part of a community working to support each other. And it’s our experiences with each other that contribute to who we are and how people perceive us, and it’s our response after a negative experience that enables the rebuilding or refining of relationships.
So I write more without answers but more of a topic that I have been thinking about lately, the idea of re-entry, of return, of welcoming students back into our rooms and our lives after we all know that something happened. Because our goals as teachers and administrators are to teach, to adjust, to refocus, to redirect, to support and, I think, very rarely ever to ignore or to give up.
I think we first have to acknowledge that it is going to be awkward. People will look. They will talk. They will whisper. They will point. They will have thoughts that we will never know about the incident before.
And we have to communicate to students that we will recognize their discomfort, the awkwardness, and everything else that showing up again after a difficult event entails.
It might be a pat on the back and saying, “I know how difficult this is for you, but I am here to talk it out / be a support / prevent it from happening again.”
It might mean addressing it as a class (I seek permission from parents and the student when doing this), which I think can be incredibly powerful. When you acknowledge that something happened, others were affected, and we are now moving on, it can send a message to students that we make mistakes but our classroom culture is important to us—so important that it had to be addressed—and now we can move on.
It might mean that a simple “I’m sorry” is necessary. And sometimes brevity is okay. More can be said with less, and it is so important for kids to hear that from their peers and adults. We must model the behavior we expect from our students.
We must acknowledge the sinking-of-the-gut feeling that happens when we all do something difficult and then acknowledge when students take this important next step. This might mean a quick, “I am proud of you,” or a thumbs up, or a pat on the back. But we must reaffirm the power of taking that step to rebuild and move forward.
Returning is never easy, but with our help, the burden is lessened and we begin our journey toward restoring or reaffirming the sense of community we want to achieve.