Shelter preparations at East Meck High School in North Carolina in advance of Hurricane Florence. (Justin Parmenter)

It just so happened that as Hurricane Florence was approaching the Carolinas, teacher Justin Parmenter was giving a lesson on empathy to his students in a seventh-grade language arts class at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte. In this post, Parmenter writes about the real-life lesson in empathy kids can get from the hurricane.

An educator for more than 20 years, Parmenter started his teaching career “believing that I was going to transform every child,” just as many first-year teachers do when they are placed in schools with high-needs populations. He quickly learned how complex teaching actually is.

Parmenter has written a number of posts for this blog about teaching and the effects that data-driven school reform has had on his profession and on students. In this post, he writes about how a real-life lesson in civil discourse with his students gave him hope for the future of this divided country.

Parmenter is a fellow with the Hope Street Group North Carolina Teacher Voice Network. He started his career as a Peace Corps volunteer in Albania and taught in Istanbul. He was a finalist for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Teacher of the Year in 2016, and you can find him on Twitter here: @JustinParmenter.

This appeared on his blog, and he gave me permission to publish it.

By Justin Parmenter

On Wednesday I found myself, just like all the other teachers in my school, leading a monthly character lesson. This one happened to be on empathy. My students and I talked about the novel “Wonder” and the importance of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with those in need of support. We discussed how we can make the world a better place through how we choose to treat others. Students dutifully participated in the activity, but it felt very theoretical — probably because it was.

Just a few hours later, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools announced school closures for Thursday and Friday in response to the threat posed to North Carolina by Hurricane Florence. The statement opened by saying “ Together, we can be the neighbors we teach our students to be.” It continued:

Hurricane Florence has forced evacuations to emergency shelters and we must consider safety in new ways. CMS is proud to serve our state and region by opening several CMS school campuses as emergency shelters led by the Red Cross in partnership with other agencies. Emergency shelters opened today for evacuees at CMS high school campuses including East Mecklenburg, South Mecklenburg, North Mecklenburg, Olympic and Ardrey Kell. Emergency shelters at additional schools may be opened.

These emergency shelters are staffed and provisioned by the Red Cross with support from partner agencies to  meet shelter, medical, nutrition, comfort, safety and security needs. CMPD and CMS-PD are supporting shelters with officers, equipment and communications assistance.

CMS believes that supporting our neighbors in need is the right thing to do for our state, community and people affected by Hurricane Florence.

Parent reactions to CMS’s decision were predictably mixed, with some praising the move but others choosing to see the issue only in terms of the personal inconvenience posed by unexpectedly having to take care of their own children:

Yesterday I took my son and daughter to East Meck High School under sunny blue skies to see shelter preparations firsthand. On the way there we talked about what 30+” of rain and winds over a hundred miles an hour can do to your home, of the destruction caused by storm surge and flash flooding, of the implications of living with no electricity or clean water for days on end.

When we got to the high school, evacuees had just begun to trickle in. In the gymnasium, dozens of cots with Red Cross blankets on them lined the floor in neat rows. A handful of kids sat playing games and coloring at a table and a gentleman sat alone in the bleachers reading his Bible. An enthusiastic group of volunteers stood ready to welcome some of the more than 1 million people expected to evacuate coastal areas of the Carolinas. It was a powerful lesson for my kids in the importance of identifying with how others are feeling and providing support when we’re able to do so.

I’ll grant you that there probably aren’t a lot of CMS students complaining about having some unexpected days off school, whatever the reason. But let’s not miss the opportunity for them to learn an essential, real-life lesson. Our kids won’t learn to be the people we want them to be through hearing us talk.

They’ll learn it through watching our actions. And today I’m very proud of the actions that my school district and community are taking to provide help to those in need.