Your education classes in college prepare you for the nuts and bolts of the teaching profession. You learn to craft your lesson plans, focus on your curriculum, create your assessments, and develop your classroom management strategies. However, there is one thing you are never taught how to deal with; the hardest lesson, the death of a student.
I teach seventh grade ancient civilizations and one of the topics we cover is the Etruscan funeral custom of having a celebration of life ceremony when a noble died. It is at this point that I always joke with my students that when I die, I’m not having a funeral but rather a going away party and that they are all invited. I don’t want people to be sad, I want them to remember the fun they had in my class and the goofy things I did.
I explain that the rules are simple; they are to come to my funeral and not the other way around. At this point the conversation turns serious as I relate to my students an experience I had my first year in the classroom.
My first teaching assignment consisted of a one-year temporary position teaching in a small rural junior/senior high school in southwestern Pennsylvania. It was a very tight-knit community where everyone knew everyone. I had two-thirds of the seventh grade and the entire junior class, a whopping seventy of them. It was exciting being on my own, but I was barely staying a day ahead of the students as I was learning the curriculum. Nevertheless, it was very enjoyable getting to know the kids and learning the routine.
And then it happened… As my juniors came to homeroom that morning there was talk of a bad accident on the way to school. Details were sketchy as they weren’t able to see a lot from the bus. We transitioned to first period and more information trickled in. It didn’t take long for the kids to realize that two of the boys were missing. I tried continuing business as usual but the kids’ minds were certainly not on the lesson.
I remember feeling so helpless as I watched one of my students start to shake uncontrollably and spontaneously burst into tears. It caused a cascade effect as more and more students started to lose it. I had no idea what to do.
College certainly didn’t prepare me for this and I was closer in age to the students than I was to the rest of the staff, so I had little real-life experience to fall back on. When it was announced that the two students had been killed, the school turned upside down. I expected my juniors to be devastated but was surprised by the impact it had on my seventh graders as well. Typically outgoing kids were very subdued and the normal banter and laughter were missing. Extra counselors were brought in and the entire school grew closer than I had ever seen it.
The absolute worst part was the viewings. I was at a complete loss as one of the moms leaned on my shoulder, heart-wrenching sobs wracking through her body. Words failed me.
It was so early in the year that I hadn’t really had the chance to get to know her son. All I could do was hold her and offer my meager condolences. The sense of loss was overwhelming.
Things eventually returned to a new normal and the rest of the year passed uneventfully. With my temporary assignment finished I returned home promising to come back for my juniors’ graduation.
More than twenty years have passed since then and unfortunately, there have been more losses along the way, but none as difficult as those first ones. The reality is that we give a little bit of ourselves to every student that walks through our door. They become “our” kids and losing any of them is utterly devastating.
That makes it the hardest lesson.
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project, please join like-minded individuals in The Good Men Project Premium Community.
Photo Credit: Pixabay