Policy Resource

Sunshine on the Darkest Day

May 18, 2013

In the aftermath of the devastating natural disaster in Oklahoma, when terrifying images of the giant tornado filled our television screens, many heroes emerged from the maelstrom.

Prominent among them were people to whom parents had entrusted the care and education of their children. We join the people of Moore and all of Oklahoma in mourning the loss of life, including children caught in a collapsing school as the tornado swept through the town. But one thing is clear and cause for quiet celebration: yesterday, the courage of teachers in elementary schools and child care facilities saved many children’s lives.

Tornado drills are a fact of life in Oklahoma, so neither adults nor children were unfamiliar with what to do when the warning came. Still, the phrase “this is not a drill” surely added an incalculable fear factor that could have sent all that practice out the window. But it didn’t.

Today, story after story emerged of teachers who herded children into bathrooms, helped them huddle at the base of walls, and shielded them with their own bodies. Teachers who, the children said, saved their lives. One had an SUV land on her while the bodies of the students she was protecting went unscathed. Another story came from a teacher who, when a small boy wailed that he didn’t want to die there together, said firmly, “We are not going to die today.”

We don’t often think of courage in the face of life-threatening events as a prerequisite for teaching young children. These days it is called for all too frequently. Teachers, from early childhood up through high school, don’t always command the respect or compensation they deserve. But on a day such as yesterday, we should stop and think what it took for those educators to suddenly become emergency leaders: to remember the drills, lead the children through the procedures, keep them from panicking—keep themselves from panicking; remain calm and reassuring; and finally, place their own bodies in greater danger in the hope of saving these children from injury or death. Individuals who could manage all that must themselves be awesome forces of nature in the classroom.

Being early childhood folk, we at ZERO TO THREE are particularly inspired by the story of the staff at one child care center. They took their young charges into two bathrooms to wait for the tornado to pass—which it did, taking part of the roof with it. But the teachers kept the children calm throughout their ordeal by leading them in singing “You Are My Sunshine.”

We know that effective early childhood teachers are those who are able to establish close relationships with the children in their care. The trust those children placed in their teachers as they calmly joined them in song, literally in the center of the maelstrom, is a testament to the power of those relationships.

We owe all these courageous educators and leaders our gratitude for their resolve to keep the children in their care safe. But we should also reflect on the fact, and be thankful, that they bring the qualities of composure, clear thinking, and caring, so apparent on that dark afternoon, to their interactions with children all the time. And that’s a source of sunshine every day.

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