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How a high school principal in Oregon is helping her school process the Capitol siege

January 9, 2021, 2:00 PM UTC

The 9/11 attacks occurred during Amy Fast’s first week of teaching. Nearly two decades later, she now serves as principal of McMinnville High School in McMinnville, Ore. In times of blindsiding public crisis, all eyes are on her for guidance and stability: Students and staff, teachers, and families look to her to lead the community in processing the events in real time.

That’s exactly what happened Wednesday as America collectively watched Trump supporters—many displaying swastikas, Confederate flags, and other symbols of hate—storm the U.S. Capitol in defiance of the presidential election results. Fast, who was in back-to-back meetings, looked down at her phone to see various messages from staff containing screenshots of the news coming across their feeds. They wanted to know immediately: How should we handle this in our classes?

“I initially processed it as a community member, citizen, and parent—just shock and disgust, honestly,” Fast told Fortune. “And then, after that, I immediately put on the principal hat and figured out: What do we need to do as a school for our staff and our students?”

Before the end of the day, she and other school leaders had come up with a plan, and she sent out a memo to staff.

“The best thing we can do is to take a deep breath, maintain our routine for our sake as well as our students’, and dig deep to muster as much calm as we can,” Fast wrote. “Predictability is the antidote for uncertainty.” She also encouraged teachers of all subjects—not just social studies—to feel free to discuss the events during class and reminded them to make use of the school’s employee assistance program’s mental health resources.

In an email to students Thursday morning, Fast provided words of encouragement and invited them to gather for an optional virtual, multi-layered discussion that afternoon.

“The disequilibrium so many of you are experiencing all while trying to balance your studies and typical teenage life (no easy task during a ‘regular’ year) is not lost on me,” Fast wrote. “At 2:30 some of our social studies and school counselors teachers will be hosting a virtual discussion room for students who are interested in having a respectful and welcoming space to reflect on and converse about yesterday’s events at the nation’s capitol.”

That session was originally scheduled for one hour, but the staff let it go on for two.

Fast spoke with Fortune just prior to that discussion session. She shared her ongoing leadership approach toward this week’s events, amid their larger social-political context—and amid virtual school and the pandemic. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What were the first thoughts going through your head Wednesday as you saw the events unfold? How did you discover that the Capitol was being stormed, and what happened next for you?

As a school leader, there are two things we always have to balance. One is that, when students are experiencing extreme tragedy or uncertainty, what they need the most for their emotional well-being is predictability, routine, and structure. And for teachers to model a kind of calm. Meanwhile, teachers aren’t feeling very calm. If we were in person, and there was some kind of tragedy that was unfolding, we would oftentimes get what we call a roving sub: someone who could relieve a teacher for a few minutes while they compose themselves.

In a virtual environment, it’s a little bit different. I have a few teachers who have had a hard time processing this, and I’ve offered to join their classrooms or relieve them. But ultimately, we want our teachers to be there for the students because it’s the most routine for them to have their regular teacher. But you also don’t want to pretend like everything’s normal and fine because that is insulting, especially to high school students. They’re chomping at the bit to have a parent, teacher, or someone that they trust to talk this through with. 

Then the second piece is equipping teachers with how to do that well with their students. What’s weird is we’re in this quarter system due to virtual learning. So not every student has a social studies teacher this quarter. Typically, if we were in an in-school setting, we would create a room that, if students were feeling like they’re having a hard time processing what’s going on in the world, they would be able to go to this space and talk it through with a counselor or someone. Or they’d be provided some kind of opportunity to do something with the information they have, whether it’s writing a letter or being an advocate in some way, they’d be able to process it in a way where they felt like they were contributing somehow. 

How do you approximate that level of support in a virtual setting?

Today at our 2:30 session, we’ll have different breakout rooms that smaller groups of students can be in to discuss what’s on their mind and to air their questions. And then our counselors will be there in case there are students that are having a particularly hard time emotionally processing it, and they can go into an individual breakout room and do the same counseling they would do an in-person setting.

Had you done this kind of virtual discussion room, or breakout sessions any other time since remote learning started? 

No, we just punted on this one. We’ve had a lot of unrest and instability and disequilibrium during the last nine months, for sure, and we’ve had a lot of focus groups and planned times to talk about things, like equity and students’ experiences in our school’s discipline system. But this is the first time we’ve scrambled and created a virtual discussion room since this pandemic hit.

Fortunately, our social studies teacher and counselors have the training on how to present material in an unbiased way and how to support students. The counselors have trained on how to support students when they’re feeling dis-regulated. So there are certain groups of educators who are prepared to kind of punt like this when we’re experiencing a tragedy or a situation where students might need extra support.

What kinds of resources do staff develop to help guide students in how to talk about the events? You’ve suggested that the discussion in the breakout room is usually very open ended, about seeing what people are feeling. So how do you balance that?

The most meaningful form of an education is when students can examine information, use their critical thinking, and come to conclusions on their own. So it would be very likely that our social studies teachers would say: “People are debating which words to use in this situation. And here are the definitions of each word.” Or, “Here’s the history of protests in our country. Here’s a history of peaceful transitions of power. What words would you apply to the situation?” 

Every time I’m sitting in a classroom listening to students discuss these issues that adults struggle to respectfully discuss with each other, I’m always so hopeful about our future because I’m so impressed at their ability to hear each other, to listen to each other, to have open minds, and then to respectfully disagree with each other. These moments are probably the moments in education where our students grow the most, because they’re grappling with real-world issues that adults are struggling to grapple with.

And then there are questions so many experts aren’t even sure of the answers to, questions up for legal debate, like whether Trump can be impeached again. Do you empower teachers to say they don’t know something? Or try to find the answers? 

I’m not so worried about teachers not having all the answers. I’d be more worried if they didn’t have the answers and were trying to answer, then not having the answers and saying, “here’s how we find credible sources,” or “here’s what’s happened historically, what do you think?” It’s really putting that thinking back on the students. 

At the same time, that does create even more uncertainty for our students right now, which, again, is something that we have to be aware of when it comes to their social and emotional health and mental health needs.

What kinds of things, in a remote learning environment, do you do to allow your staff to decompress or get support as they process things themselves?

With this pandemic, and election, and civil rights issues that are happening in our country, for a lot of our educators, I think it’s like that frog that’s in a boiling pot of water. They’re not realizing the stress that they’re having to hold on their shoulders until they’re at their breaking point. So, more so than just in a moment of tragedy, we focus on being there and providing resources for teachers, such as counseling services.

All staff have my cell phone number. We try to create an intimate work environment, where staff feel comfortable to let you know when they’re struggling, especially in a remote setting where we don’t see each other unless we have scheduled a Zoom meeting with each other. 

You mentioned that some students don’t have social studies class right now. And certainly in other classes, there is intersectionality between the subjects. But how do you advise, say, a math teacher, about how to balance the need to get through their curriculum and address this important historic issue?

Our staff are always permitted and encouraged to feel the room. If students are showing that they need to process something, and that’s preventing them from learning the math, math teachers absolutely are able to stop class and try to help them process that. 

We also have a Student Support Center, which is comprised of a behavior specialist, a crisis counselor, and a school psychologist, at the ready to pick up kids into a virtual room. It may be that a student doesn’t want to discuss this for four hours a day in each of their classes. It’s one thing to address, and another thing to inundate students with this. So that Support Center crew can work with that student in a virtual Zoom session or breakout room to help them and then get them back to their learning. 

How do you address something like this in newsletters or communications to families or parents, given differing ideologies or interpretations?

The key is not just what you put out in those moments, but what you put out in between each of those moments, too. By the time a tragedy hits, or there’s something that needs to be said that could be polarizing, families in the community feel like they know me already. It’s not the first time I’m saying something with some weight behind it. I find that I get a lot of grace from the community, and a lot of people willing to sit at the table disagree respectfully, or be the village that raises our kids together, because I’ve worked hard to be transparent over the past couple years—about everything, not just the big things.