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My husband has been a high school teacher for twelve years. During his fifth year, several of his students from the soccer team were killed in a car accident. The driver lost control of his car, went through a barrier, flipped the jeep and landed in a ravine full of water. A few years later, another student was killed on the train tracks by the high school. The latest was four years ago when a student was killed by a drunk driver. I had just met this student at prom of that year where my husband and I served as chaperones. It was heartbreaking.
When the May 20, 2013 tornado ripped through Oklahoma City, hitting two elementary schools, it took seven young lives. Most of these students died either in their teachers’ arms or right next to the teacher. It was devastating for everyone involved especially those teachers who were with their students as they died. The entire community of Moore still grieves these losses.
Last year, one of my former parents died. She was very actively involved with our school and many students still remembered her and were still friends with her son and daughter. Even though this wasn’t a student of mine, my students still needed to know that they could come to me to talk about it.
So what happens when we have to deal with a death? What happens when we go to the funerals of young children and young adults who have been taken all too soon?
We spend many hours each year with our students. We invest in their lives and they impress themselves upon us. We teach them to collaborate in class, work in groups with other students and help them grow academically, emotionally and sometimes even spiritually. When one of them is taken from us, it takes part of us, and part of our classroom team.
Counselors are usually available when this happens, but counselors don’t always know our students like we do and it’s difficult for kids to speak with someone they don’t know very well, and even more difficult when those students are young adults who know that the counselor doesn’t truly know them. More often than not the job of helping students through grief is left with the teachers who have invested in them, but do teachers really know HOW to help these students with this process?
We first need to help ourselves by realizing that it is okay for US to grieve with our students. We are caregivers. We are the ones who are always helping and nurturing others. A lot of times we forget that we need to take care of ourselves as well. We should all be familiar with our staff counselors and principals. We should have an excellent professional working relationship with these leaders so if the time comes where we need this kind of help for ourselves we know whom we can go to.
We also need to be aware of the stages of grief and we need to be vigilant when talking to our students about deaths that have affected our schools and classrooms. Developing relationships with our students is crucial BEFORE this kind of situation arises. Each year we need to be conscious about learning our students’ names and trying to remember as much as possible about our students so they know that they can come to us to talk about things that are bothering them. These students spend more time in school during the week than they spend at home. They need to feel safe and secure with their teachers. Deaths of classmates can lead to students feeling hopeless, depressed and lost. Teachers need to be aware of changes in their students’ behaviors, attitude and affect so they can help identify those students who are having a difficult time dealing with a death.
When we signed up as teachers we knew the responsibilities we were agreeing to. We also knew that this was going to be more than a ‘job’ and that our days don’t end when the bell rings. We must be ready for every possible situation that may occur, no matter how terrible it may be.
Have you ever had to deal with the death of a student? What did you do?