photo: emergency exit in library

During the 1950s, American schoolchildren hid under their desks during “duck and cover” drills to prepare for the possibility of a long-distance nuclear attack. But when today’s students are asked to practice lockdowns and evacuations, it’s often in preparation for a threat far more familiar, and closer to home. With school violence making headlines with grim regularity, teachers are now tasked not only with springing to action in emergencies, but also with spotting signals that a parent, fellow staff member, or even a student could be contemplating the unthinkable.

So how can budding educators maintain a safe classroom environment while remaining alert to possible dangers? And how does one discuss threats of gun violence, suicide, or assault with young children?

These are some of the most urgent questions being addressed by the faculty who oversee the Steinhardt Department of Teaching and Learning’s required crisis-preparedness training, an ever-evolving curriculum that includes topics as diverse as HIV/AIDS prevention and how to recognize and report child abuse. Education in a variety of these health- and safety-related topics is required by law for anyone becoming a teacher in New York State, but several years ago Steinhardt went a step further by combining disparate workshops into a single course called “The Social Responsibilities of Educators.” The comprehensive curriculum offers insight from social workers, guidance counselors, school principals, speech pathologists, and even high school students.

“You want to teach your content well, but these topics are just as important to being a really successful educator,” says clinical assistant professor Rosa Pietanza, who offers the innovative course.

For each topic, students are given case studies—often based on real incidents from New York schools—and then discuss what they would do in each situation, before hearing the panelists’ advice. What should a teacher do if they hear that a middle schooler is being bullied on Facebook? What is their responsibility if a kindergartener shows up to class with mysterious bruises? “Practice is important—we want to give people the tools and language to use, so that they don’t freeze up when these difficult situations happen,” Pietanza says.

Where school violence is concerned, finding the right toolkit can be particularly challenging. Pietanza’s approach has been to emphasize the importance of teachers building positive relationships with students, so that if something does go wrong—a student suspects that a classmate has a weapon, for instance, or notices that a friend has become especially withdrawn—they already have a trusted adult to confide in. That connection could literally be life-saving: Pietanza cites research revealing that in the majority of cases where potential incidents of school violence were averted over the past 18 months, it was because a student noticed suspicious behavior and reported it to a school official.

The finding matches what Steinhardt students hear from high school panelists invited to their “Social Responsibilities” course from NYU’s partnership schools Essex Street Academy and Sunset Park High School. “They’ll say things like, ‘When I have a problem, I go to Mr. So-and-So, because I know he’ll listen,’” Pietanza says. “As a principal, I also experienced it many times myself—a student would leave a note outside my door saying, ‘Ms. Pietanza—at 3:15 something’s going to happen!’”

Then there’s the dilemma about what to do when something has happened, whether within one’s own school or even just in the news. “That’s the question I hear more and more these days,” Pietanza says. “Teachers in training want to know: ‘If students bring up these topics in my classroom, how do I respond?’” Her advice is not to shy away from the difficult subject, but rather to work it into the curriculum—perhaps through assigned reading. After students have read a story where a character is bullied, for instance, the teacher can ask, “Have you ever witnessed this? Has it ever happened to you?”

For very young children especially, Pietanza says, nurturing empathy is key. While it might be difficult for elementary-age students to process and discuss their own complicated feelings and fears, they might be more likely to grasp how to help or advise a fictional character in a similar situation. Steinhardt also partners with the Educational Video Center, which helps young people make documentaries about challenges in their own lives, and with Connect With Kids, which maintains a website of videos addressing each of the topics covered in the “Social Responsibilities” course.

If there’s one thing Pietanza finds unhelpful to these discussions, it’s the political debate among non-educators about whether arming teachers could help prevent school shootings. “It really upsets me, especially when you hear from law enforcement about how difficult it is for them to make decisions around using guns, even after all the training they’ve had,” she says. “Let’s focus a lot more on prevention—on giving more attention to our students, on bringing in more guidance counselors and social workers—rather than bringing more weapons into our schools.”

It can also be tiring for new and veteran educators alike, she says, to hear the constant drumbeat of criticism suggesting that everything that goes wrong in a school is the teacher’s fault. While teacher training programs like Steinhardt’s rightly emphasize the social and emotional aspects of the job, the responsibility of reaching students who’ve experienced trauma or poverty or homelessness can be a heavy one to shoulder.

“We talk a lot about self-care,” says Pietanza, “Working in a safe space is very important for kids, but for teachers too.” On 9/11, she was the principal at a school one mile away from the Twin Towers and, she says, “nothing prepared us for a situation like that.” Still, she says, in the aftermath, having already built positive relationships with the community really paid off. “We were able to come together and say, ‘Here’s how we’re going to take care of each other and support each other.’”