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Why Teachers Shouldn't Be Expected to Talk About Bin Laden's Death

My fourth-grade son's teacher didn't talk about the killing of Osama bin Laden in class—and that was a good decision.

One of the first things my 10-year-old fourth grader said on Sunday night after we finished watching President Obama announce the killing of Osama Bin Laden was, "I wonder what my teacher will say about this at school tomorrow." I'm not surprised he thought that. After all, students spend most of their waking hours in classrooms, and teachers, and their opinions, are huge influences on them.

But is it fair to expect teachers to have these conversations? After all, class time is limited, standardized tests are looming, and homework needs to be reviewed. And it's not easy to explain to kids—who were either very young or not even alive when 9/11 happened—why our nation spent 10 years tracking Bin Laden down and then killed him. Even adults have a hard time comprehending what happened, so why do we expect teachers to have deep conversations about it with students?

Maybe the answer is that they shouldn't have to—at least not until they have some sort of training in talking about culturally and politically sensitive issues with children. We like to think teachers automatically know the right things to say. But when they're going through their certification programs, there's no special class on how to make meaning from the assassination of a terrorist. One friend told me over the phone last night that because of worries over what could go wrong in these conversations, her principal advised against any classroom discussions about Bin Laden's death. If students asked about it, she could acknowledge the fact that he had been killed, suggest that the kids ask their parents about it, and then steer the class back to math.

There are certainly plenty of other teachers across the country who had free-form classroom discussions about what happened—can you imagine a social studies or government teacher trying to skip this?—but for every teacher that tells students that American's shouldn't celebrate Bin Laden's death because an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind, there's going to be a parent writing a complaint letter to the principal. Likewise for every teacher who seems a little too enthusiastic about it. Imagine a student goes on a borderline anti-Muslim rant and the teacher doesn't address its inappropriateness. Given that teachers and schools are already under such incredible scrutiny and pressure, why open a discussion that could go wrong in so many ways?

Indeed, it turns out my son's teacher didn't proactively ask the class what they thought about Bin Laden's death or lead a discussion about it. My son was a little disappointed, but we'd talked about it a great deal at home, so he was OK with it, and so was I. As much as kids need time to process tragic happenings we should stop expecting teachers to shoulder the burden of tough conversations about social issues if we're not going to train them how to have them. If educators choose to opt out of talking about Bin Laden in order to avoid misunderstandings, angry notes, or litigation, more power to them.

photo (cc) via Flickr user USACE Europe District

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