Its 7pm on a wonderful summer Tuesday. I have just walked out of the movie theater with my very excited 2 year old nephew and he is jabbering on about Buzz Lightyear and I am soaking in these moments that I get to go to the movies and not worry about grading or planning or anything teacher related…but then I get a text.
Colleague: Sorry to hear about ___.
Colleague: *students full name*, it was a car accident, boss lady sent out the email. I am so sorry.
More words were exchanged, most of which were just shocked statements and I honestly cannot remember, because I was juggling three children near a busy street and trying to process what I just heard, and this is an all too often reality for teachers.
School Never Prepares You for Students Dying
I spent 2 years working on the education portion of my degree. That includes a solid 4 semesters of education classes ranging from how to work with students with disabilities, lesson planning, collaborative PLCs, how to teach reading, math, my own content (science), educational law, ethics, linguistically diverse students and more…you know what we NEVER talked about…death of students.
The school I went to for my education degree is a leader in the field of education, it is where you go in Colorado if you want to be a teacher. It is based in a generally at-risk area and there is a lot of focus on how to work with that particular population. The majority of students in this education program are elementary education majors, but they do have a secondary education focus and it runs slightly different from the elementary education teaching program.
Now maybe things have changed…I have been out of school for over a decade, but not once was student death mentioned in our classes. No one ever prepared us to cope with the loss of these kids that we spend 9 months (or more) building relationships with or to understand how to react when one is taken to soon. We get told about signs of suicide, we are given after-the-fact resources to seek therapy to work through those big emotions and the grief, but nothing prior.
Your Kids are Our Kids
I say this often. I do not know a teacher who just teaches because they love grading and planning and discipline and being completely exhausted, living off granola bars and 1 bathroom break all damn day. We do it because we want to make a difference. We care about your kids and YOUR kids, become OUR kids very quickly.
Teachers build relationships with kids. This is how we get them to enjoy learning, to connect to the material and to want to be in class. Think about when you were a student. The classes you most enjoyed (and likely learned the most in) were the ones that you liked the teacher and felt like you had a relationship with.
Those relationships we build are not arbitrary. We do not do them for us, in fact most of us just build them naturally because we care about your kids and we want to get to know the people that we spend 40 hours a week with. We love them, we parent them, we discipline them, we redirect them, we teach them life lessons, we talk to them and check in on them and somewhere in there, we teach them something that is on some standard that this nation says is important.
Did you read the “We Love Them” statement. We do. Even the little stinkers that drive us bonkers. Sometimes we love those ones a bit harder because we know that likely the reason they are “tough cases” is because they need us, they need our attention and they need someone in their corner.
Those tough kids. Those are my bread and butter of kids. I mean that is a terrible way to state that, but honestly, those are MY KIDS. I tend to work best with the kids that are struggling with things that most adults could barely deal with. Those “at-risk” kids and I bond something fierce and I have a whole long story about why this is (and believe me, I know exactly why these are my people).
Now, I love all my kids fiercely regardless of how society wants to categorize them, but I can tell you that for my students who have lost their parents, who are suicidal, who are dealing with mental health, or have parents in the system or are marginalized, I tend to give a bit more of myself. I have been known to go to bat and near blows over a kid because I know in my heart that sometimes these kids just need a win and just need someone in their corner.
I know I cannot fix every single one of them and that kills me, but I pray that I can reach them on some level and let them know that they will overcome these obstacles and that I will do my best to help them as long as they work to help themselves as well. I also know that they have a higher rate of death in their populations and that the reality is that I will attend more funerals for this group then I care too, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt when one of my babies doesn’t make it.
Death and Teaching
It changes you. My first year teaching we lost one student, some years we lose more, sometimes less. Over summer we tend to lose a few more then during the school year and I am sure there is some sort of correlation between summer deaths and school year deaths. Each one gets you. Each one is hard to understand. Each one sends you on the grief spiral and each time you wish you could have done more and been more to that kid.
Losing kids is hard. We see their potential, we also see the other side of life and high school and we know that those kids will get through it…but first they have to get through the now. When they do not get the chance to do just that, it is killer. Now of course there are so many more success stories, but honestly, we want them to all be success stories. We want to see all of them get that diploma, beat those demons and make something of themselves because we know they can.
I am not the same naive teacher I was at the beginning of my career. I used to walk in to a school year worried about getting through the standards and managing my classroom and now I walk into a school year ready to parent harder and love stronger and hopefully teach them something. I value those relationships and I know that my place in the classroom is more than just educational. I know that I make a difference daily and that the relationships I build with my kids are long lasting and life-changing…for both of us. They shape me, just like I shape them.
What Needs to Be Done?
1. Education Programs Need Curriculum Around This
Not just signs of suicide, but actual curriculum or panels to discuss this reality. Not everyone has dealt with grief, not everyone has coping mechanisms, not everyone just knows that this will happen and will be able to seek out resources. Teaching candidates need to be taught about grief and about those resources.
2. Schools Need to Provide Support
I have worked in a few districts. The only one that has really been incredibly focused in providing support and resources to teachers (and students) is my current one. Schools and administration need to be vigilant and make sure that teachers know that they can access support and even setting up mandatory check-ins with teachers that were particularly close with the student that passed would be a great idea. Even recommending support from an online place like BetterHelp would be great!
3. Teachers Need Self Care
Mental health is a real issue in the education field. Teachers do not talk about it a lot. We just do not, because we are the ones leading those kids and supporting their needs and they NEED us. Teachers jokingly say that summers are not time off, but mental health rehab, but there is A LOT of truth to that. It is our time for self-care and sometimes during the school year we need that too. We need to grieve, we need to take care of ourselves and we need to talk about our losses, because self-care includes working through grief.