Just seven days into our new school year, Hurricane Harvey hammered the greater Houston area leaving 11.5 million people in its wake. In our town, approximately 1/3 of homes took on water; some lost everything. Many students had to be rescued from the rising waters by canoe, jet-ski, boat, or helicopter and were taken to nearby shelters to wait out the storm. Once the hurricane passed, district counselors met to debrief knowing full well that our students’ lives were forever changed. For us, teaching after Hurricane Harvey means helping kids bounce forward into their new normal.
Assessing Our Needs
Each teacher called all their students prior to returning to school, to find out how they fared through the storm. We wanted to know where students were living and if they were displaced, what they might need. From those phone calls, counselors followed up with compassion calls, starting with those families who were displaced due to flooding. We assured the caregivers that we will be there to support their child and their family.
We met as a staff one day prior to welcoming students back so that our faculty could reconnect and share their stories. Our leadership team normalized our feelings of fear, anger, confusion, guilt, gratitude, frustration, grief and loss. We agreed to put homework on hold for the time being and we asked our teachers to just love on our students, to let them know that they’re going to be okay, to give them hope and to help them heal.
Keeping Routines Routine
We decided to keep our first day re-do happy and routine. Teachers continued their getting-to-know-you activities, greeted our children at the door with a handshake or a hug, and wore smiles bigger than the storm ever dreamed of being, like they always do. I stood at the front door with my ukulele welcoming students with song. Students led our morning announcement and we launched into our day with enthusiasm and joy. The leadership team delivered birthday pencils to all of those who celebrated their special days during the detour. Then we made a plan for checking in on all of our storm survivors. We knew that if we kept it real, our students would be comfortable and comforted.
Caring For Physical Needs
Thanks to the generosity of our community, school supplies and backpacks were donated to our displaced students. Students who’d lost their planners in the floodwaters came down to the office to get new ones. Those who’d lost their backpacks and lunch kits came shopping for a new one in my office. It was empowering for them to pick out the one that they wanted. From the phone calls, I knew who needed clothing, socks and shoes. Those students met me at our Clothing Exchange to pick out a few things they’d need while they are in their temporary homes. A Disaster Relief Coordinator volunteer from each classroom is coordinating a meal train to help feed those in need while they’re displaced.
Teachers led Morning Meetings and encouraged talk time with their students. If a child’s feelings got too big for them to handle, then we invited them to our counseling space. They’d sit in our rocking chair while they told me about their experiences and processed their feelings. Some were sad. Some were angry. Many just lost. All of them ready to be found, eager to heal.
In addition to talking through our feelings, we wrote in our journals, drew and colored, and strolled outside through our labyrinth. We listened to soft music, practiced stretching, manipulated the buttons in our button bin, strummed up a storm on our ukuleles, and sat outside in the butterfly garden. We also talked a lot about the compassion and care of the volunteers who’ve been at their homes helping them. Our students are so grateful.
At the end of our reunification week, news of Irma’s path to Florida was abuzz in the hallways. To my delight, I overheard one of my students telling another that we know what they’re going through and that maybe we could make them cards of empathy and encouragement like the ones we’ve been receiving from people across the nation. It occurred to me that Harvey took a lot away, but it also gave us some very important values: Perseverance, Appreciation, Togetherness, Hope. Yep; we are on our path to recovery.