By: Jacob Chaffin
**Trigger Warning: Suicide, Death
What follows is a reflection of the toughest week I have experienced in my first year as a teacher. Names have been changed and some events intentionally have details missing in order to respect the families involved.
A few weeks ago I woke up to a text from the principal at my school explaining that the school was experiencing a tragedy and that he needed me to stay the entire day (I’m a teaching fellow, so I only teach 4 hours a day). Next came the email from the district superintendent explaining that Mr.Wheeler, a well respected elementary teacher, had taken his own life.
I don’t think I have ever opened an email that shocked me as much as that one. In fact, it wasn’t until the 4th read that I began to understand the gravity of the situation. I slowly began to realize that an important figure in our school, someone just down the hall from me, would no longer be there. My next thoughts were of my students and accepting that his son, Jared, was in my language arts class. Dealing with loss was not something that I had experience in, nor did I feel that this was something that my teacher education courses prepared me for. I felt wholly unqualified to console Jared, my students, or other teachers. Nonetheless, I understand that there are some situations no amount of training can prepare you for. This was one of them.
When I made it to the school I immediately went to a veteran teacher to ask for advice. In a moment of honesty she expressed that she has never experienced a situation like this either, and was equally at a loss. Although it was frustrating that she didn’t have a set of strategies or best practices, it was also comforting to know that we were equals in navigating the grieving process with our students.
The principal and district responded by having the entire school staff meet in an emergency morning meeting. We were updated on the situation and informed that social workers and counselors from throughout the region were being brought into the school. We were also encouraged to do whatever we thought was necessary to help our students and fellow teachers.
The students slowly filled the classrooms around 10:30 am. Some students were aware of what had occurred that morning. You could see it on their faces. Meanwhile others had no clue. We, the 5th grade staff, explained that the principal and social worker would be around shortly to tell the students what had happened. Not only did the principal tell the students the facts, he also began the grieving process. He assured students that their emotions and questions were valid, and told them where they could find/reach out for support within the building.
After the meeting we split back into our separate homerooms. As expected, the students were expressing a wide range of emotions; from open grief, to silent stoicism, to passive indifference, and everywhere between. In order to facilitate a more structured space for students to express themselves and support one another, a fellow teacher and I opened up one classroom to serve just that purpose.
I didn’t have a plan or an expected outcome, but I knew that I could be doing something better for my students. I understood that taking on such a traumatic experience should not be done in isolation. We arranged the room into a large circle. I began by explaining that this would be a space for all of us to express ourselves, ask questions (whether anyone had answers or not), and share stories about Mr. Wheeler. We reiterated that all emotions were valid. The other teacher also made a point to emphasize to the boys that crying was an acceptable and normal reaction. This was done so that they could fully express themselves without fear of being judged.
I told the students that I was feeling confused and concerned for them. I also told them about how I have always looked up to Mr. Wheeler, and that I had learned a great deal from him in the short time that I have been at this school. After that the students went around telling us all how they felt and shared their own wonderful memories of Mr. Wheeler from the previous year. The stories they shared highlighted the rarely known moments that teachers are truly remembered for. During this process, the students taught me about the teacher I want to become.
After about 40 minutes of group reflection, many of the students expressed a desire to write cards of support to the family and specifically to Jared. We all sprung into action. As I grabbed paper and writing utensils to begin, the students asked a crucial question: what do you say to someone going through an experience as traumatic as losing a parent?
Being that I was wrestling with this same question, I didn’t have an answer. We discussed different possibilities and ultimately decided that uplifting messages and Bible quotes would be the most appropriate. Another student, one that confided he couldn’t cry anymore because he had been through this process many times before, expressed that he wanted to write something different from the other cards. I encouraged him to draw on his experiences to show empathy and support. The idea here was to share stories of understanding between two peers.
At the end of the day we had another staff meeting to debrief. Crisis specialists were brought in to further guide us on what to expect from the coming days and weeks. As I drove away from the school after that first day, I saw my students playing wiffle ball with Jared on his front lawn. The scene gave me hope.
The rest of the week I devoted classroom time to allow students to reflect on how they felt. We started each class with a “one-sentence check-in.” During this time, students would go around in a circle and say how they were feeling, giving them each an opportunity to ask questions and offer support to one another. This allowed me to gauge how to approach the day. This process was supported by administration at the school. I can’t emphasize enough how important it was to be in a school that allowed the education machine to shut down in order to fulfill the needs of the community.
During my first class on Tuesday, I struggled to say the truth when my students asked how Mr. Wheeler had died. I defaulted to the classic “that question might be better answered by your parents.” I was sidestepping my students in favor of my own comfort. This was particularly troubling because so many of the students knew the truth and that I was just scared. By my next class I had come to terms with my responsibility to be honest and clear with my students. And looking back at it, I can say that it’s easier to be open with your students with tears in your eyes than it is to hide behind a straight face and pivoting away from the truth.
I also tried to create a balance in my classes between dialogue/reflection and routine. In this way, the day-to-day lessons served as an escape. Generally speaking, as we continued the “one sentence check-ins,” my students showed signs of improvement. Observing that they were coming to terms with the death, I asked my students to brainstorm ways that they could support Jared upon his return to school (whenever that would be). During this session the students were asked how they would want to be treated. Answers ran everywhere from treating him like “normal,” to giving extra recess, and to “let him throw a pie in your face!” From there we discussed what “normal” was and whether or not you can truly treat someone like “normal” after they’ve experienced a major loss. Again, I was impressed with the range and depth of empathy and solidarity that 10 and 11 year olds displayed when tasked with supporting a fellow student. In a word, they were inspiring.
The week ended with a ceremony in which the kids released balloons with final messages to Mr. Wheeler. The ceremony acted as a small gesture of closure. Of course, the grieving process doesn’t conveniently end with a ceremony at the end of the week, but closure is an important step in the healing process.
Reflections on Community
That initial week, and those that have followed, have taught me the importance of community. I would be remiss to not include the educators that I turned to for advice in the educolor community. Along with resources and prayers, everyone seemed to emphasize the importance of looking after myself. Admittedly, this isn’t always the easiest thing to do. In my experience with other teachers, they are usually the last people to be mindful of their own emotional needs. But it is important that we do not become too worn down by the work we do. Ultimately, taking care of ourselves, especially in situations like these, is integral to being better teachers for our students.
As my time with these students and this school comes to an end; the lesson of community will be one that I will carry with me. From the classroom, to school, to entire town: community plays a crucial role in the grieving process. It’s a beautiful thing to work and live in a place that quickly rallies in times of crisis. I’ll never take this for granted.
*Use of the 5 Stages of Grief is done as a rhetorical device. This reflection does not encompass the full scope of the process.
Jacob Chaffin is a graduate student of Critical Studies at Ohio University, and is a 5th grade teacher in Southern Ohio. He is also a founding member of the Ohio University Student Union and a member of YTC’s Coordinating Committee. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacobbayes.