Teaching and Leading During a Crisis

Sep 29, 2022

On August 13th, 2004, the first week of my senior year of high school, Hurricane Charley barreled into the Gulf of Mexico, made a 90° turn, and proceeded to ravage my hometown. 

Last night, from my living room here in Michigan, I watched Hurricane Ian do the same thing all over again. My grandfather in Port Charlotte is without power and water and is surrounded by untold amounts of damage. I’m loading up my chainsaw and gas cans and driving down to help him tomorrow morning. 

The full extent of the damage is yet to be seen, but I’m guessing this will be a busy weekend, and my hometown has months of hard work and disruption ahead.

Charley claimed 15 lives, caused 16 billion dollars in damage, and destroyed my home as well as high school. Needless to say, tensions were high and there was a common sentiment that the school year would be a waste. 

But the educators at my school had other ideas.

As a teacher now myself, I think back to that turbulent year through a different lens, and recognize some of the work teachers did to make school not only happen, but also meaningful and engaging. Now, as I think about what teachers in Florida have ahead of them, I have no doubt that they will do the same. 

My teachers showed flexibility.

The turbulence following the hurricane was enormous. Classrooms and all of their supplies were destroyed, and the ‘usual way’ of approaching work in school blew away with the storm. There would have been ample opportunities to complain and bemoan the changes, but I do not remember a single instance where a teacher complained in front of students. Instead they made the space work.

The English teachers created their own reading nooks; the science teachers used whatever was available in labs; math teachers taught from different textbooks. There was nothing easy about these changes, but in the same way they did during Covid, the teachers modeled for their students how to adapt.

My experience from almost two decades ago is no different than what’s happening today. This is what teachers do. We make learning fun, creative, and engaging for students … no matter the circumstance.

Florida friends, I know you will be facing many of these challenges in the months ahead. It won’t be easy. But like all teachers do in these trying times, you’ll find a way to make it work.

Life was not just difficult at school for my teachers.

After nearly a month, power was turned back on in my family’s FEMA trailer, and we were able to return to school. However, since our school was razed by the storm, we had to attend school in the afternoon and evening at the rival high school on the other side of town. This meant our rivals (fierce rivals) had to go to school in the morning starting at 5:30 am, and we lucked out with the 12:30pm shift. You can imagine how our rival’s teachers and students felt about this. 

On top of this, the town had serious looting, price gouging, curfews, and armed National Guard soldiers stationed at every major intersection.

I never even considered it at the time, but my teachers were living through all of these circumstances in their personal lives as well. And yet somehow they found a way to still show up every day. Like during Covid, the disruption was real and school didn’t happen as planned. But magic still occurred. I still learned, grew, and found success in school. And a lot of that is owed to the educators who, despite the stresses of their own lives, kept doing what educators do.

Teachers’ wisdom is needed during a crisis more than ever.

I remember one day when I came into school, the windows to one of our classrooms was smashed and my teacher’s supplies were all over the room. A student from the rival school had committed the crime, and he had taken his anger out on us. My friends and I were boiling with anger, and we wanted revenge. But our teacher, with timely wisdom, stepped in and said, “Let’s just see this problem as an opportunity. Let’s show them that we will not be broken.”

My senior year was not what I expected it to be. It was a year of toil, discomfort, confusion, and chaos. But it was also a year of endurance, patience, resilience, and hope. 

Looking back, I do not think I could have described it that way without my teachers. There is so much value in modeling an uplifting spirit to students. My teachers’ calming presence was contagious, and their example of perseverance became our own. I learned that year of my life that I can overcome adversity, no matter what obstacle is in my way.

Even if that obstacle is a hurricane.

So if you are an educator in Florida right now, take care of yourself for the road ahead, and know that despite all of the disruption that occurs, your students will still learn and grow under your leadership. 

And if you have not been affected by a hurricane this week, I’m sure there is still plenty of disruption happening around you. Even in the midst of storms, know the extraordinary impact you can have on your students and community.

Florida educators, thank you for all that you will do in the months ahead.

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