How Difficult ‘Day After’ Discussions with Students Can Help Them Process the Present and Prepare for the Future

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WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: Protesters supporting U.S. President Donald Trump break into the U.S. Capitol on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Congress held a joint session today to ratify President-elect Joe Biden's 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. Pro-Trump protesters entered the U.S. Capitol building during demonstrations in the nation's capital.  (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

This story about teaching the Capitol insurrection was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Staring at the faces of the middle school teachers on her computer screen, Principal Laina Cox felt the tears welling up — again. They were discussing an email she’d sent the night before. The subject line read: “Living history.”

Written hours after a violent mob of rioters invaded the U.S. Capitol and shook the country, Cox’s note called on every single teacher to talk about the insurrection in class. She wanted every middle schooler at Capital City Public Charter School in Washington D.C. to remember who was standing in front of them, and what they learned, on Jan. 7, the day after the attack.

“I require my teachers to be truth tellers,” Cox said. “We aren’t able to process as people. We have to process as those people who are standing in front of children.”

Last Thursday was the latest in a decades-long string of markedly difficult days for educators — the “day after,” when the country begins to process and some teachers push aside planned lessons to explore students’ questions and unpack their emotions. These are days that educators say shape their careers and classrooms — and experts say include increasingly crucial conversations as historic national events become more frequent and polarizing.

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Cox can rattle off from memory nearly a dozen of these tearful mornings, starting with the September 11 attacks during her first week of student teaching. Graduate school hadn’t prepared her for that, she said, but it had left her with the impression that she wasn’t supposed to cry in front of students.

Related: A U.S. history teacher scrambles to explain unprecedented attacks and desecration of democracy

“This 20-year difference is such an eye-opening piece for me,” Cox said. Back then, she was nervous about the fact that she had cried in front of her students and had “shown them my vulnerability,” she said. In 2021, she said she was “crying with confidence because I knew that that represented my passion.”

Sept. 12, 2001

Caroline Patrie is a high school science teacher in Maine's Portland Public Schools; her first day as a teacher was September 11, 2001. (Caroline Patrie)

September 11 was Caroline Patrie’s first day teaching. Construction had pushed back the new school year at her Vermont high school. The intercom and phones weren’t set up yet, so a teacher came to Patrie’s room to tell her everyone was gathering in the library. Together, they watched the second tower fall. Then they heard the scream of jets taking off from a nearby National Guard armory.

“In that very instant that day it became really crystal clear to me what public education really is about,” she said. “It's about teaching human beings, and it’s not science or English or social studies or math … It’s about teaching human beings how to become good people.”

The next day, Sept. 12, Patrie started her class by being honest and talking about her own shock. From then on, Patrie, a science teacher, started difficult days by asking her students how they felt — an approach recommended by the education nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves. A guide published by the organization last week suggests teachers, “focus first on emotional processing, addressing the ‘heart’ before the ‘head.’ ”

Dec. 15, 2012

Marie Hydukovich was pregnant with her second child on Dec. 14, 2012, the day that 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. She found out through an email, then looked at the middle school students in her classroom in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and calmly moved to lock the door.

Marie Hydukovich was teaching middle school when she heard that 20 children had been murdered at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. She is currently a library media specialist at South Saint Paul Public Schools, in Minnesota. (Marie Hydukovich)

The next morning, her students wanted to talk about what had happened at the Connecticut elementary; as a class they read an article on CNN Student News. Then they moved on.

“Kids just need time to talk if they want to, but they also need to not be forced to talk,” Hydukovich said. “We always worry so much about what would we say to kids about what happened, we don’t always worry about where do we give kids space to just not.”

She locked her classroom door every day for the rest of the school year.

April 20, 2015

The day after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man, died of a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody in Baltimore, math teacher Justin Aion was instructed by his administration not to address what had happened. Looking at a room of students of color, Aion felt the directive was wrong. There was no similar order after Sandy Hook, he said.

“Kids are not dumb,” he said. “Kids know what’s happening in the world ... It dismisses them and it dismisses their emotions.”

Aion, who now works for an environmental charter school’s fledgling high school, which is chartered by Pittsburgh Public Schools, didn’t bring up Gray, but he gave his students room to talk when they brought him up.* After that he started regularly encouraging conversations about politics and social injustice into his math class. Then, when a major national event affected his students, it wasn’t as jarring to open a discussion.

“All teaching is political. What we choose to teach, how we choose to teach, all of those are political decisions,” Aion said. “And you cannot teach kids who are traumatized ... Ignoring that in order to examine content standards is incredibly short sighted.”

Related: Confused and angry, young teachers seek guidance on discussing current events with students

March 14, 2020

After Breonna Taylor was fatally shot by police while asleep in her Louisville apartment on March 13 2020, Cox, the Washington D.C. principal, sent a staff email with the subject line, “A letter for Black women.”

Laina Cox, a middle school principal at Capital City Public Charter in Washington D.C., raises a fist in support of Black Lives Matter. (Laina Cox)

In response to the shooting, the school gave Black staff members a mental health day, “to deal with the post-traumatic stress that was coming from the continued murders of Black people at the hands of police,” Cox said. Meanwhile, white staff members attended anti-racist workshops, planning how to address the situation and take action to eradicate racism in a predominantly Black and Hispanic middle school. Cox oversaw all of it from the guest room in her home while school remained virtual due to the coronavirus.

“Trying to process through this trauma behind a Zoom screen has been overwhelming,” she said.

Jan. 7, 2021

On Jan. 7, in Georgia, Marian Dingle’s fourth graders first read an article about the state’s two senate candidates who won their run-off elections the day before, turning the U.S. Senate blue. Then they read one about the attack on the Capitol. They discussed four key words: protest, riot, coup and insurrection.

On Jan. 8, they talked about what led up to the insurrection. And they’ll keep talking about it. Dingle said it’s her responsibility to identify racism for her students, to stop them from internalizing the shame that comes with it.

“For people of color, especially for Black people, there is no ‘day after.’ It’s every day. It’s just Tuesday,” Dingle said.

Done right, these conversations can help prevent a future “day after,” said Darcy Richie, senior director of program and impact for Generation Citizen, a civics education organization that supports students getting involved in local issues. The scope of these conversations can be small, she said, focusing on how national issues play out in students’ daily lives. And the goal can be simple: helping students feel confident in their knowledge of how government works and empowering them to be civically engaged.

“The way the world is operating right now ... is not okay,” Richie said. “And we just have to acknowledge so much of the change that is necessary falls on the shoulders of teachers. But I believe in the power of teachers, I believe teachers can change the world.”

*An earlier version of this article misstated the relationship between the school and Pittsburgh Public Schools. We regret this error. 

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This story about teaching the Capitol insurrection was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.