Succumbing to Sandy (and School), or Embracing the Unexpected?

Posted on October 30,2012 by shansenmspp

This time last week I had no idea a hurricane was even in the weather forecast. Now, two canceled days of school, two postponed classes, 24 hours of whipping wind, and countless Twitter updates later, I can’t imagine Sandy not being on her way. At times during the past couple of days, it has felt like there was nothing happening anywhere except for this hurricane – and I was reminded of the hurricane that landed just a few days before I started school at MSPP and which derailed my transportation plans in an instant. While the collective memory of Irene has mostly been replaced by the downed power lines, flooded streets, and fallen trees of Sandy, last year’s hurricane has been present in my mind.

Irene dropped a giant (and I mean, HUGE) tree branch on my car last fall; it shattered the front windshield, tore through the roof, and knocked out the side windows. There was also water damage inside, and the frame of the car was compromised. I saw the branch crash through my car, and felt fortunate that I was inside safe and sound with my family. After first declaring the car a loss, my insurance company eventually decided that the 8-year-old car could be repaired. I was also left wondering how I would get to MSPP for my first days of class.

This time around, I parked my resilient little Honda in the driveway of the house where my apartment is located, in between two tall houses, and most importantly, a good distance from any trees or telephone poles. Sandy, meanwhile, did not even knock out the power on my block, while friends and family on the east coast have begun serious clean-up from the ravages of the storm on their homes, cars, subway system, and sidewalks. People in West Virginia who do not even own snow shovels are finding themselves digging out from blizzard conditions, while New York City slowly starts to function again, limping from the temporary loss of its major transit system.

My recent experiences with hurricanes in Massachusetts, earthquakes in Chile, and hailstorms in Texas have all reminded me of just how unpredictable natural disasters can be. Although we can track hurricanes with sophisticated radar, we don’t know with total certainty which trees will fall, which parking lots will flood, whose house will collapse under a telephone pole. The only thing we can expect from hurricanes is raging unpredictability.

For those who have not spent much time in schools recently, this level of uncertainty and this number of unexpected events are par for the course, day in and day out. While teachers may have an idea which students are likely to perform well on a test or who will probably arrive 20 minutes late, there are also many unforeseen incidents and occurrences throughout the school day, every day. One child throws a temper tantrum in the hallway, another gets a bloody nose at recess. The fire alarm system malfunctions, causing evacuation of the entire school in the pouring rain. Parents become alarmed by a school psychologist’s findings, history teachers are assigned to cover biology classes at the last minute as the flu is going around the science department. A student throws a chair through the window, another finally remembers to bring her assignment notebook to class, and a third is found crouched under a table, sobbing. A sophomore fails to arrive for his testing session, and the soccer team shows up to school in their pajamas. Parents bring in breakfast to thank teachers for their hard work. A group of juniors initiate a food fight in the cafeteria. A teacher’s most popular lesson falls flat for the first time and he must change gears quickly to keep his students on task. For those who work in elementary and secondary schools, unpredictability is the name of the game.

While we prepared ourselves for the hurricane by stocking up on bottled water, chocolate bars, and batteries, we are often woefully underprepared for the minor metaphorical hurricanes that whip through schools on a daily basis. School personnel often handle the unexpected as best they can, but crisis intervention and prevention plans must be in place, teachers must receive training to de-escalate angry students, and to safely restrain students if necessary. Teachers need back-up they can count on; other adults (including school psychologists) to help them navigate and juggle the constant deluge of unexpected scenarios. They must have back-up lesson plans, and a reliable communication system with school administrators. They need support for newly implemented programs, and for phasing in new behavior management strategies. In many cases, additional funding could provide these resources and more, to help teachers best manage the expected unexpectedness of an ordinary school day. Now, if we could only get public education as much airtime as Sandy has captured over the past several days, and as much financial support for launching a fresh start. In the meantime, back to the whirlwind of school – I will be juggling two transition groups, a counseling case, three evaluation cases, and rescheduling an intern training I have helped develop. I'm not sure what unexpected events the day will bring - I’m just grateful Sandy left my car alone so I can get there on time.