What does it mean to hold space during tumultuous times?

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These are unprecedented and complicated times for those of us who live in the United States. We are facing an important test of what it means to live in a democracy.

Schools can become a haven for students by becoming safe spaces for children to voice their emotions, whether they are angry, surprised, sad, or confused. This doesn’t mean that educators should amplify those feelings or emotions, but that we give them space.

If you are a teacher, you are faced with the task of speaking to your students about what is happening. You may feel anxious because you don’t want to be triggered by your students’ feelings or because you anticipate repercussions from parents.

As difficult as it may be, this can be an opportunity to enable students to express themselves during this polarizing time and to find some solace among a community that welcomed and even shares complex emotions.

Start by acknowledging recent events.

Discuss how complicated this situation is. Explain that you don’t know why this is happening and that you don’t have the answers while acknowledging that the current situation is probably grounded in more than just the events of the past two weeks. This situation has been building for months and years.

Acknowledge with your students that they can hold space to listen to one another around these painful, disturbing, and complicated circumstances. 

Allow students to ask questions and express themselves. If they’re feeling rage, despair, or confusion, discuss what might be connected with those emotions. What did they see or hear that is feeding those emotions?

Chart questions and emotions and look for patterns. Uncover students’ assumptions about what it means to be the president, to conduct an election, and to transfer power from one administration to another. Ascertain thoughts, confusions, and questions around the role of the news and social media in reflecting, amplifying, and distorting events. 

Treat this as an opportunity for humility and inquiry.

Don’t feel as though you need to start from scratch.

Leverage resources from organizations like Facing History, Teaching Tolerance, Edutopia, PBS, and KQED. These organizations have curated and compiled excellent lessons about how to deal with controversial issues, acknowledge trauma, and talk about the election.

Protect yourself by separating from student anger.

By acknowledging the anger you’re hearing from students, you can separate that anger from yourself. 

As you listen to students, respond with statements such as:

  • “I recognize and hear your anger …”
  • “I think what I hear you saying means that …”
  • “I hear that you feel …”
  • “I recognize that what just happened is making you upset about…”

Reiterate that you are not seeking to convince students that they are right or wrong, but that you are making an effort to help all of you grapple with something you’re all feeling emotions about.

Go ahead and tell your students that you, also, have very deep feelings about recent events. That you are feeling disturbed, confused, or something else. Acknowledge that you are all in the same boat.

Remind parents that school must be a safe space to share.

You may receive pushback from parents who are, themselves, triggered by recent events. They will have their anger and may not feel it is appropriate to discuss these events at school.

It is important that you remind those parents that school must be a place that enables students to share and feel safe in sharing their emotions. We want students to be able to articulate their questions and concerns.

As you did with your students, let parents know that you aren’t trying to convince anybody of anything, but that you’re also there to protect everybody. You aren’t going to amplify voices of hatred or anger, but instead allow the ability to say, ‘I’m really angry,’ ‘I’m really sad,’ or ‘I’m really confused.’

We must preserve one of the very few spaces for people to uncover and reconcile different perspectives. We are polarized in so many places and it’s been incredibly difficult to have conversations across political divides.
Schools should be a safe space where we can acknowledge perspectives and be civil toward one another.

Lean on your administration.

Allow your building principal to act as a gatekeeper when parents call with questions or concerns or a conviction that children shouldn’t be talking about the election. 

He or she can reiterate the previous points: that schools enable students to ponder the question: How shall we live together? and that we are all experiencing significant historical events in which none of us are detached from what is going on.

Maintain the value of right and wrong.

Finally, uphold that there is a clear right and wrong when it comes to oppression, racism, and hatred, but it is important to recognize that - in a democracy - there are different reasons and different ways of negotiating values.

If you have had discussions with your students around this week’s events, share how those discussions went. Were they difficult, enlightening, or both? Did the thoughts and feelings of your students impact your view of recent events?  

The courage to hold space to listen to our children and to our ourselves can be healing and transformative as we travel through these unprecedented times.