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From natural disasters like earthquakes and wildfires to political upheaval or acts of violence, bad things happen in our world — and inevitably permeate our classroom spaces. Understandably, knowing how to address these complex topics and guide students through them can be challenging for teachers already fielding a heavy workload. 

Yet, as educators, we understand that besides wanting to talk about and make sense of what is happening around them, students are often eager to get involved and offer assistance when confronting tragedy. Therefore, teachers and schools must know how to support their students in navigating these challenging times and guide them in their efforts to help. 

Unfortunately, we had a stark reminder of this last month when the unfathomable occurred in Turkey and Syria. With over 50,000 people dead, thousands of others missing, and millions homeless, the scale of the devastation is still revealing itself, and the full impact will not be understood for decades.

So, how can schools attempt to grapple with a tragedy of this scale, especially when it unfolds in their home country? 

To help understand how educators can take action in a way that offers support and hope to their students, we spoke to Ali Bathuthan Bardakci, an IB Coordinator at IELEV International School in Istanbul. Along with his colleagues, they generously offered to share some insight into how their school community has mobilized in the aftermath of this tragedy. 

Engage in direct proactive communication 

As Mr. Bardakci and the staff of IELEV explained in a joint document, the most important first step was assessing everyone’s safety and mental and emotional state. 

“Since the beginning of this difficult process, IELEV Private High School Student Council, Parent-Teacher Association, and School Administration have collaborated to provide aid to our citizens living in the earthquake zone according to their needs.”

Due to the school holidays after the disaster, the team prepared a Google form to reach our students to learn about their emotional states. In this form, they sought to understand the following topics;

  • Were you in one of the affected cities during the earthquake?
  • Do you feel that there are adverse changes in your psychological state due to the earthquake agenda (loss of appetite, changes in sleep patterns, irritability, feeling depressed, anxiety, etc.)
  • Have your relatives been injured or lost their lives in the earthquake?
  • If you are experiencing unusual emotions, please indicate what you are experiencing.

They were also supportive in determining ways to help their immediate school community, asking respondents to specify any situations related to the subject they would like conveyed to the Psychological Counselling and Guidance Department.

Understand that these situations impact each student differently 

Once everyone’s security has been assured, the next steps are to provide a clear overview of the situation to ensure everyone can access accurate information and the resources to navigate and process it. At IELEV, based on the answers given in the Google form, students were supported through individual interviews so their questions and concerns could be addressed directly. “Psychosocial Support Earthquake” activities were carried out by attending classes.

As Mr. Bardakci explained, “a Psychosocial Support Earthquake seminar was held on zoom for teachers working at the school before the school opened. In addition, “Emotional States Assessment” forms were prepared. In light of the data obtained, Emotion Sharing Group Work was organized for teachers and other staff on the first day of the school opening.”

Realizing that responses to such trauma may be delayed and would undoubtedly vary according to the individual, the staff at IELEV operated according to the following tenants upon returning to school:  

  • The student should be given as much detailed information about the incident as possible, provided it is age appropriate.
  • It should not be assumed that the student will not fully perceive or be affected by the situation; time should be allocated for the student.

Students should be made to feel connected and protected

As the response from IELEV indicates, in this delicate time following a tragedy, it is vital to employ a strategy of connect and protect. Teachers should be prepared to listen to students’ fears and be a calming influence. It is advisable to maintain a regular schedule but also understand that learners may sometimes act out or be off-task. 

The principles Mr. Bardakci and his team followed were rooted in making students feel heard. In addition to implementing these practices in the classroom, they offered guidance for parents and caregivers:

  • The child should be allowed to express their feelings and thoughts about the event.
  • Instead of saying, “Don’t be sad, we need to be strong”, saying, “Yes, you are sad, I understand”, will provide more comfort.
  • Explain that the feelings and thoughts your student develops as a result of the event are “normal”.
  • Physical contact with your child is very important.
  • The child should be allowed to play games and draw and should be allowed to express what they are going through.
  • There must be an answer to the child’s questions about the situation. This answer can be “I don’t know. I will share it with you when I find out.” Ignoring the problem is the most disturbing situation for the child.
  • Tell your child often that you love and support them. Emphasize that these days are temporary and that you are working on getting things back on track as soon as possible.
  • Involve your child in daily life as quickly as possible and give them specific responsibilities.

Create an action plan

Finally, it is critical to help students translate feelings of hopelessness into opportunities to respond with productive action. When something terrible happens, the school community must come together to figure out how your class can help survivors and families who have experienced the trauma.

This not only helps students cope with difficult news, but it is a significant educational opportunity to help them embrace their own agency and explore their roles in the world around them.

At IELEV, they created a framework for action and provided straightforward ways for students to get involved. Aware that citizens and fellow students in the earthquake region need material and moral support in the coming period, they got to work assembling care parcels. 

To ensure an ongoing support flow, they identified different items of need each day in line with the Priority Needs List published by AFAD through the district governorships and prepared parcels to be delivered. In preparing these parcels, the Student Council Earthquake Relief Coordination Unit provided information about the items students could bring to support earthquake victims through their class representatives.

They will continue to prepare parcels for different needs at regular intervals until the end of the school year.

Supporting one another in times of tragedy

When faced with tragedies of such horrific scale, it is more important that we come together as a community to support and learn from one another. We sincerely thank everyone from IELEV who took the time to contribute to this article and allowed the circumstances they are currently dealing with can be a lesson to all of us. 

As we all work to inspire young people to feel empowered to confront some of the globe’s biggest challenges, we will continue offering resources geared towards providing meaningful support. A big part of our mission has always been to encourage students to educate themselves on the issues they want to tackle, using national groups as models and sources for further information. We also offer resources to guide students in creating an action plan focusing on the steps they could take to make a positive impact. You can discover more Service Learning resources here

If you would like to assist IELEV in its relief efforts, please take a look at the highlights section of their Instagram page for more details.