I N T O M Y A R M S
One morning last fall, my classroom door suddenly opened and several former students asked if they could speak to me. Seeing the urgency in their eyes, I stepped into the hallway. As they fell into my arms sobbing, they told me they had just received word that a classmate of theirs had died by suicide the night before.
I listened and tried my best to manage their confusion and shock. When I knew they were safely over the initial shock, I sent them back to their scheduled classes. By the time I re-entered my classroom, my current students were sitting in silence, looking to me for answers.
First, I gave the students time and space to reflect. Then I listened to their mixed and complex emotional reactions. I used the lessons of the text we were studying to gently and carefully talk to the students about what had happened, in what I felt was a well thought out and safe way.
That entire day, I continued to listen to the complexity of emotion from current and former students. They were processing the death of a well loved classmate.
At the end of that emotional day, I finally went to my desk for a moment of much needed quiet, so that I could begin to deal with my own emotions, which had been put on hold.
I recorded in my journal the common recurring themes of emotion that my students had experienced as a result of this tragic news. Some students had said:
I do not deserve to feel sad; I did not know this student.
I noticed that my classmate had withdrawn, and yet I did not reach out.
I am sad, because it stirs up my own sorrow, as well as memories of my own losses.
What should I do, if I see that a classmate or friend is feeling depressed, so that this does not happen again?
The reality of the day-to-day business of teaching had dissolved in order for me to be present for my students. I took a deep breath, and turned to my laptop to answer emails and to post assignments for the following day. The cycle of life continues even in times of tragedy.
As I checked my email, I found a note from my principal which had been sent that morning, telling us the news and asking us, the faculty, not to share it with students yet. The administration felt that it was important to give the family time to create the narrative around the death. My principal went on to recognize that, while we were feeling sad and confused, it was important for the teachers to create a sense of normalcy for the students.
As I read the note, I gasped with trepidation, as I had just experienced a tumultuous roller coaster of an emotional day which was far from any “sense of normalcy.”
I knew that I would need to document and follow up with my principal what had transpired in my classroom. I had proceeded as my training in developmental psychology and teaching had prescribed, yet I had done completely the opposite of the request.
This request did not take into account the fact that students would go looking for support from trusted teachers from their past, hence the knock on my classroom door that morning.
Then I opened another email. Later in the afternoon, another note had been sent to the faculty outlining a carefully crafted response to read to the students just before dismissal. The note let the students know of the tragedy, and it warned the students that they would feel a range of emotions as they processed this information, including anger, sadness, fear, and confusion. This range of emotions is perfectly natural, as we all experience grief differently. The note advised the students that, at times, we will connect directly with the situation, or that such news may take us back to earlier losses we have experienced. And it was okay for the students to feel no emotion at all.
No matter the emotional response, the note advised the students of the importance of acknowledging the emotion, taking care of themselves by speaking with a trusted adult, journaling, eating a balanced diet, sleeping, giving themselves permission to go on with the routine of the day, taking care of one another, and realizing that the school counselor and teachers were here to support them.
Because I had been absorbed with speaking with and listening to students that day, I had missed these notes.
At first, I was taken aback by the request to “be silent.” However, upon further reflection, I understood that this request was primarily out of respect for the family. I realized that not all teachers would have been prepared with the tools or the words to support students upon hearing the news.
I was grateful for my many years as a teacher and my training in psychology. I realized, yet again, the importance of encouraging our students to have an adult in the building whom they trust, so that when sorrow strikes, anxiety deepens, or depression envelops, they have a door to open to find support, love, and solace.
In today’s globally connected world, our students are exposed to violence, death, and sorrow, daily. We, as teachers, must be equipped with the right words to use.
We hear from our principal almost weekly of the increased levels of anxiety and depression in our students, mostly due to social media, as well as the established psychological principle that adolescent’s face every day: the imaginary audience. With social media exposure, that audience has expanded out of control, increasing adolescent anxiety to unprecedented levels.
We, as educators, cannot be silent; we must talk about anxiety and depression with our students now.
My school community did a tremendous job of supporting students, faculty, and the family of this student who died by suicide. As I reflect, I realize the importance of training teachers how to support students before that classroom door suddenly opens.
With sincere gratitude to the teacher who
submitted this essay to Unsilence.
INTO MY ARMS, published here by Unsilence
anonymously and with full permission,
inspired our interactive story TOMORROW.
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