Teaching After a Natural Disaster – Challenges and Ideas

Gathering storm: This NOAA satellite image taken shows Hurricane Sandy off the Mid Atlantic coast. Combined with an unnamed nor’easter gaining strength as it moves from the West, the massive storm threatens to wreak havoc on the East Coast
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2224629/Hurricane-Sandy-path-2012-How-Frankenstorm-created.html#ixzz2C7Ycnxqv
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Hurricane Sandy hit the New York/New Jersey East Coast region on Monday, October 29, 2012. In its wake, homes were destroyed, businesses ruined, miles and miles of coastline washed away, and lives disrupted, some tragically. Montclair State University closed for the full week, an unprecedented event in the University’s history. The following Wednesday, November 7, 2013, the already battered region was hit by Nor’Easter Athena. While not as devastating as Sandy, it complicated efforts to return people to their homes, to restore power and services to still struggling communities, and to allow people to get back to some semblance of normalcy.

As educators, it is always our job to promote a supportive, professional, calm demeanor in class – storm or no storm.In our Faculty Teaching Circles meeting held on November 12, we discussed concerns and ideas for returning to teaching and supporting students, while maintaining course expectations and curricular goals. As well, we acknowledged that educators in different disciplines will necessarily need to address this situation differently, according to what makes sense for their particular course goals. One of our attendees was able to fold the event into course assignments (a first-year writing course) and to have students analyze how events such as Sandy affect cultural and social behaviors in certain settings — not all educators can be that flexible or adaptive.

The following list poses some thoughts from our discussion, as well as some resources we identified as potentially helpful. Even though we can’t get back the last two weeks, or even the last three months, and anticipate the devastation we would be confronting now, if nothing else this experience teaches us that we need to think about how we can be ready for traumatic or catastrophic disruptions in the future.

Please weigh in with your ideas or stories related to this topic. Post here, on Facebook, or Twitter (#teachingthroughthestorm).

1. Being prepared: build in contingency plans into your syllabus and course design. The following advice is taken from the Santa Barbara City College on building a syllabus (adapted). It is simple in its recommendation: always plan your course expecting that somewhere, for some reason, you will miss a week (illness, bereavement, conferences, or natural disasters). Attendees yesterday confirmed that they have a “throwaway” week built into their course — this material is “what we’d love to cover, but can afford not to if we have to cancel class.” We also affirmed that, when we review our syllabi with students at the beginning of the semester, we should discuss with them the “plan” for emergencies or unanticipated course disruptions. Be sure students understand your commitment to continuing class — being understanding (and realistic) but consistent with your expectations — and that you provide clear lines of communication (see #4 below on forms of communication) for them.

2. Keep on Truckin’: Know how to emotionally and socially support your students when returning after a catastrophic event: the Huffington Post published a blog post by Professor Lori Ungemah, who helpfully parsed a government document (available as a .pdf download here) and adapted its recommendations for university/college educators. Her advice:

  • Step 1: Listen
    Teachers or adult school staff should provide students with an opportunity to share their experiences and express feelings of worry, anxiety, fear or other concerns about their safety.
  • Step 2: Protect
    Adults should try to reestablish students’ feelings of both physical and emotional safety. They can honestly inform students about events surrounding the crisis, such as sharing with them information about what is being done in the community and school to keep everyone safe.
  • Step 3: Connect Help students reestablish their normal social relationships and stay connected to others in order to experience social support. Restoring and building connections promotes stability, recovery and predictability in students’ lives. A student’s classroom and school is a safe place to begin restoring normalcy during a crisis or disaster.
  • Step 4: Model Calm and Optimistic Behavior
    In times of crisis or disaster, children and adolescents [all students, of any age! JD] watch adult reactions and receive cues on how to confront adversity. This step reminds adult staff in schools that they are role models. While teachers and other school personnel might also be affected and may not know exactly how they will navigate recovery, adults can acknowledge their distress but demonstrate a positive and optimistic approach and show students that constructive actions provide hope for the future.
  • Step 5: Teach
    During the coping process, it is important to help students understand the range of normal stress reactions. School counselors, nurses, psychologists or social workers can take on this task [for university students: point them to support services, recovery teams, and articulate your adminstration’s communiques that provide resources – JD]. These professionals can teach students, staff, parents or guardians, and volunteers about common reactions to the specific event or disaster, such as the fact that children and youths may have more difficulty with learning after the specific event.

3. (Not so) Wild ideas: Adapted from epidemic or post-9/11 sources: one syllabus I found had a built in plan in the case of an undefined “Epidemic” [it was posted in January 2011 – Swine Flu? Zombie Apocalypse?] . The professor advised that all assignments would still be due, but moved online (Blackboard). Indeed, most of our group had in some way provided digital/virtual ways to submit assignments via Blackboard or by email. Some instructors  simply crunched together assignments after missing the week, without an attempt to skip the material or try and squeeze it in later in the semester.

Another resource I tried when searching for tips on how to return to teaching after a catastrophe was to search for teaching tips that addressed the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I didn’t find much, but this sentence from a course on how to teach student-veterans returning from duty in Iraq or Afghanistan seemed to offer some helpful advice: “Not only are some student-veterans [students after a disaster]  struggling with financial pressures and dealing with physical and mental health [emotional and physical responses to the event] disabilities (including the “signature wounds” of TBI and PTSD), they also share the challenges many nontraditional students face, such as childcare, “relearning” study skills and understanding (often unspoken) academic expectations. Only a well-informed faculty can understand and address such challenges to ensure retention and degree-completion (italics mine).” From this, we can extrapolate some clear guidelines: provide clear guidelines! How have assignments, schedules, course expectations changed? How are you addressing absences, or the continued impact on students’ lives outside class? Communicate your response and any administrative guidelines clearly and as soon as you can.

Soem faculty had uploaded video lectures and/or live-streamed their classes via outlets like Ustream (free) for students who still had transportation issues or could not otherwise make it to class.

4. Communication: obviously, most of us already do this. We clearly state (in class and on our syllabus) the methods available to students for contacting us. Most faculty in our group rely strictly on email or Blackboard, with little or no preference for phone (cell or office) or social media outlets. This may be adequate, though some educators provide their cell numbers for texting purposes, or create a class Twitter (which most students will receive as a notification on their smart phones) for creating lines of communication. Some may create course pages on Facebook, or ask that students post to Blackboard. Really confident and trusting faculty could even set up a study buddy system that maintains a communication chain for all students in a particular course. Not many of us felt this was viable at the university level, but if any of our readers know of or use this method, please tell us your experience.

The point is, be sure students know how to communicate with you, in any situation.

Finally…it must be said…

One of the most frustrating aspects of events like these is balancing the very real predicament students (or you!) may be experiencing: transportation issues, lack of power, cable, Internet access, homelessness, or other effects. But we acknowledged that we also suspect that several of our students have taken advantage of this disaster to avoid work, exploit the missed time to skip class, put off turning in assignments, or otherwise excuse themselves from participating in class. “Of course, we can’t be insensitive to their experience,” said one of our group members, “but…”…But often we intuitively know when a student is BS-ing us. We didn’t have any real advice for this situation, other than to express that we all know it’s happening, and it is just another (minor) effect this storm has left in its wake.

Additional resource (not directly related to teaching, but this discussion imparts important concepts of leadership through difficult situations or conditions):

Ernest Shackleton’s Lesson’s for Leaders in Harsh Climates (NPR Interview with biographer Nancy Keohn): http://blogs.hbr.org/ideacast/2012/11/ernest-shackletons-lessons-for.html

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