22 years later, teachers reflect on how 9/11 is remembered in the classroom

Relatives of the victims look at the 9/11 Memorial in New York City on September 11, 2022, on the 21st anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

BY LEXI LONAS – 09/11/23 6:00 AM ET The Hill

More than two decades after Sept. 11, 2001, educators who watched the terror attacks unfold live on TV see slow changes in how the tragic day is honored in classrooms. 

Teachers are forced to walk a fine line, facing the emotions from a day that no one in their generation will forget while educating kids who see the deadliest foreign attack on U.S. soil as a distant historical event.

“It was actually my first year teaching, and we had only been in school a couple of weeks when it happened, so I was very brand new still,” said Shannon Seneczko, who was teaching fifth grade in a suburb of Chicago. “And so that kind of really hits me. That was one of my very first teaching experiences, dealing with my own emotions that day and then being there for the kids too.”

Seneczko recalled the nervousness of students who had parents in the city on the day of the attack, as no one knew where could be targeted next. 

Some were even closer to the site of the terror strikes. John DeFazio, a teacher from a private Catholic school, was just 24 miles from where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania. 

DeFazio remembers some parents coming to pick up their children, although he was not aware of how close Flight 93 crashed to their building until the school day was over. In the days following, he recalls it being “a little surprising” how things “went on as usual” in the region.

He says tributes in the following years became a kind of routine.

“There were probably some times in the next few years where they had the Flight 93 remembrance ceremonies — some of us would stop class and put it on the television. The students, actually, a few years later, could see the remembrance and the families that were gathered in Somerset County,” DeFazio said. 

And just last week, the school bused students out to the official Flight 93 memorial in remembrance of that day. 

However, further away from the crash sites, the emphasis on that day and the emotions associated with it may not be lingering as strong for students or teachers. 

“For a while after 9/11, our school did a moment of silence at the beginning of the day during morning announcements. But you know, kind of like anything else over time … not going to say that the memories fade away, but that we are farther and farther away from them,” said Jamie VanDever, who taught sixth grade during the attack and is now an eighth grade teacher in Kansas. “And as we went on, kids understood less and less about what was going on.”

“I teach an English class, and for the first few years after 9/11, we would do some writing assignments and some reading assignments toward remembrance of 9/11. I think we’ve gotten far enough away from it now where those are becoming smaller and smaller,” she added, although it has not completely faded away yet. 

For those far removed from the East Coast, VanDever says, there are fewer personal connections to the terrorist attacks.

“Being where we are out in the Midwest, it’s just very, very unlikely that any person here, at our school anyway, would have known or even known of someone who was directly affected by 9/11,” she said. “So we’re removed from that aspect of it and so, therefore, I feel like while those emotions exist for us older teachers who will remember it vividly, it doesn’t necessarily have that visceral, personal aspect of actually knowing someone who might have been lost on that day.”

While it can be increasingly difficult to get students to understand the pain of 9/11 at all, especially far away from New York and Washington, many teachers try to relay individual stories and their own experiences to let their students understand how sweeping and close the tragedy was. 

“I bring in the idea of my own personal experience, and I think because I have the rapport with most of my students, and what I have in that relationship when I talk about it I think I get their full attention,” said Mark Scheurer, a U.S. history teacher in Michigan.

One story he always tells students is how he flew a few days after 9/11, and the way a person of Middle Eastern descent was treated on that flight, with passengers seeming uncomfortable with the person’s presence. 

“I think I really get them then, and I tried to put it from a perspective where we’re so quick to judge people based on looks and that type of thing,” he said. 

Scheurer said he is “not surprised” by the drift in attitude among students, comparing it to his own recollection of teachers discussing the John F. Kennedy assassination. 

“Actually, I understand it probably more now,” he said.