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The Role of Teachers in Katrina and Natural Disasters
Lisa Green-Derry, Ph.D., Guest Blogger
On August 29, many of my fellow New Orleanians and I will exchange stories about where we were and what we were doing when Hurricane Katrina stormed onto the southeastern shores of Louisiana. My story will include watching news and weather reports from my home in North Texas, thanking God that my parents, son, and other family members had evacuated safely on the Sunday “before the levees broke.” I will also remember the feelings of horror and sorrow seeing my neighborhood, school, church, and home deluged by flood waters.
Some of the Katrina stories are likely to stir up memories about events that occurred seven years later between August 27, 2012 and September 3. I remember sitting in my children’s home on the west bank of the Mississippi River with my family experiencing something similar, but not as devastating as Katrina – Hurricane Isaac.
The days and nights during Hurricane Isaac were for me déjà vu. I was reliving several days of September 1965 when Hurricane Betsy stormed through my city. I was remembering how I longed to be in school, missed my classmates and my teachers, how I was afraid, but also feeling safe because my family offered safety and protection. What I felt as a child is what I imagined my grandchildren and other children might have felt—afraid of the storm, but feeling safe because of a protective family.
After Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans on September 9, 1965, and destroyed much of the Lower Ninth Ward, my family, neighbors, and I spent several days in the Seventh Ward recovering from the storm. Several days later, my mother and her friend took me to the shelter at the Municipal Auditorium to locate friends and family affected by Betsy. We found them safe but homeless with only the clothes on their backs. I did not know that similar scenes would occur 40 years later.
I did not know that what I saw at the shelter — adults and their children appearing sad and alone — was traumatizing to my nine-year-old self. I did not know the impact those scenes would have on my adult self. I was unaware that the traumatizing effects of Hurricane Betsy would affect how I view the manner in which teachers are prepared (or not prepared) to meet the academic needs of students traumatized by a natural disaster.
Although as a child and an adult I have been traumatized by natural disasters, I have not been consumed by the trauma. My education was not interrupted by hurricanes. I can say with assuredness that educators I encountered at Vorice J. Waters Elementary School (formerly Edward H. Phillips), educators at Edward H. Phillips Junior High and McDonogh 35 High School made sure that even though I missed days from school because of Betsy, my education was not interuppted. Teachers were prepared to meet the needs of my peers and me whose experiences with hurricanes caused some trauma.
I cannot name all of the teachers or give formal labels to the strategies teachers used. I do know that whatever my teachers did made me want to return to school (not that I had any other choice). My teachers did something that helped to calm my fears and helped me focus on learning.
Perhaps the common thread that ran between my peers, my teachers, and me was our shared experience of encountering Hurricane Betsy. My teachers’ capacity to empathize with, relate to, and teach those of us traumatized by Betsy may have influenced our sense of safety and willingness to continue learning. It is possible that some of my teachers’ good instruction was framed by an awareness of, respect for, and deep understanding of the cultural perspectives of my Seventh Ward community.
More than anything, I remember feeling that my classmates and I mattered to my teachers. Even during the first few days after returning to school and in the sometimes noisy excitement of seeing friends and teachers safe and sound, even when teachers tapped their desk tops to get our attention, I remember feeling that we mattered – our teachers loved and cared about us.
What do the feelings of a nine-year-old child, returning to school after the traumatizing experience of Hurricane Betsy have to do with the ninth-year commemoration of Hurricane Katrina? The common thread is teachers! Although this space does not allow for detailed discussion of what teachers can do to meet students’ academic needs, there are a few things to consider.
- have knowledge of the cognitive, emotional, and academic vulnerabilities of students traumatized by natural disasters
- possess an ability to address students’ needs with appropriate pedagogy have capacity to employ skillful, culturally relevant pedagogy that can help to counter some of the cognitive, emotional, and academic challenges of students traumatized by natural disasters
- take into account when interacting with students that traumatized children may exhibit changes in school behavior and cognitive performance, such as increased aggression and reduced concentration
- know the effect of cultural and historical events on students’ development
For my nine-year-old-self and my peers who lived through Hurricane Betsy and some of the children whose education was interrupted by Katrina but who “finished the course,” we are the evidence of our teachers’ skills. Apparently, many of them helped us to see our brilliance, helped us to turn any internalized negative societal view of our competence into a compelling drive to demand that any system attempting to relegate them to the bottom of society must, instead, recognize, and celebrate our giftedness.
What report will children of teachers in the new New Orleans schools give when they become adults? Will evidence of unresolved complex trauma (hurricanes, expertise gaps in classrooms, racial, class disparities, etc.) emerge in conversations about the 10th anniversary? Will the current educational landscape influenced by disaster capitalism headline the 10-year commemoration of Katrina?
Dr. Lisa Celeste Green-Derry is a native of New Orleans, educator, and proud product of New Orleans Public schools. She attributes educational and professional successes to her parents Herbert and Queen Green, the seventh ward community in which she was raised, and educators at Vorice J. Waters Elementary (formerly Edward H. Phillips), Edward H. Phillips Junior High, and McDonogh 35 Senior High schools. Her work in New Orleans and around the country is strongly influenced by her desire to decrease the social, racial, economic, and educational inequities that continue to diminish the value of every person’s right to authentic liberty.
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