As we near the one year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing, numerous thought pieces will be published that will help us understand the Boston community better. This op-ed, by Jennifer Greif Green and Jonathan Comer, appears in the April 6, 2014 Boston Herald.

                                                       Support ‘helpers’ on crisis duty

In the days following the Boston Marathon bombing, this quote by Fred Rogers circulated on websites and through social media: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ”

Over the next several months, the two of us sat down with colleagues to do just that—pay attention to the helpers. Teachers are, in many ways, the quintessential “helpers” for children and, in times of crisis, teachers may play no less than heroic roles in supporting their students.

We surveyed 188 teachers working in and around Boston, Cambridge, Watertown, and other affected communities. These teachers told powerful stories of the challenges and complexities in serving in helping roles following the attack.

One teacher wrote: “The hardest thing as a teacher is not giving false hope/promises. It’s an awful feeling when a child asks about whether or not it could happen again, and you can’t give them a definite ‘no.’ You say that you hope it never happens again, but you can’t make promises. You pray that you say the right thing, not make it worse, and give the students some sense of safety and normalcy back.”

Another wrote: “The grief and trauma came in waves. In some ways students were glad to be back to the normal routines the first few weeks, but then several weeks later, through about seven weeks, many emotional issues came up again.”

Imagine yourself a teacher standing in front of a room of young people following a mass crisis—how would you help them? How would you balance addressing a trauma with the knowledge that children need a return to routine? What would you do when some students need to talk about the event just as much as others need not to? As one teacher informed our study team: “Probably a third of my students wanted to discuss the events at length, while the rest seemed either ambivalent about it or like they preferred not to discuss it at all.”

Add to this complexity our knowledge that most teachers have little training in crisis response … or mental health, at all. Communication and guidance from schools, therefore, become essential (and, not insignificantly, a logistical nightmare when events—such as the Boston Marathon bombing—occur over school breaks or the weekends).

One teacher wrote: “I heard nothing about what I was supposed to do at school on Monday until after 10 p.m. on Sunday night.”

A considerable tension exists between a school’s mission to educate and the need to respond to student mental health concerns. But at a recent lecture a former teacher raised her hand and said that she was tired of the suggestion that teachers need to do more. “We can’t be everything to everyone,” she said, “… if there was a fire, would you expect me to put it out? You’d call a firefighter.” Agreed. But teachers have to be able to recognize the smell of smoke and know to call 9-1-1. The same is true here.

Some of the most striking quotes from our research were not about the bombing specifically, but about other traumas that draw less attention. Every day, teachers face children who witness violence in their neighborhoods and for whom trauma is a part of daily life.

Indeed, we must “look for the helpers,” but we do not need to go far to find them. They are in place. They are often the first line of defense against an uncertain world. We owe it to teachers, and to our children, to take seriously the complex and conflicting demands of their work and to provide meaningful supports to care for children in the very best way that we can.

Jennifer Greif Green is assistant professor of education at Boston University. Jonathan Comer is associate professor of psychology at Florida International University and an adjunct professor at Boston University.  (Jennifer Greif Green is related to Geoffrey Greif)

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