The Last Teacher: A Tragedy

24 Aug

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

W.H. Auden. Funeral Blues.

I invite the world into my classroom. Student learning should be as relevant to real life as possible, so I use technology, guest speakers, field trips and any other tactic possible to facilitate connections between what happens in the classroom and ‘the real world’.

Making a separation between the world outside the school and what happens inside is an artificial construct. Students arrive in our classrooms with all kinds of baggage (poverty, family dynamics, nutrition, media influences, etc.) that affect their learning. Pretending that our classrooms aren’t part of ‘the real world’ doesn’t help students in their learning or make schools better.

But there are moments when I wish all of this wasn’t true, when I wish our schools were the goldfish bowls we sometimes pretend they are, and the outside world could be kept at arm’s length. That students could find a safe and protective space inside those walls and behind those doors.

Tragedies big and small affect students and classrooms and schools all the time. As a teacher part of my role is to try to help students understand, process and come to some peace with them. Increasing transparency in our world means that younger and younger students become aware of the unpleasantness and pain that living in the world can sometimes mean. It’s hard to make school seem important if students are afraid for their safety.

Last year the ten and eleven year olds in my classroom had many questions about things like The Boston Bombings. I tried to help them understand these difficult issues and make some sense of them by letting them ask questions. Before that it was Newton and poverty and homelessness and disease and on and on. There’s no shortage of ‘big scary issues’ and I could discuss them in the abstract and with personal detachment. I could put aside my own fear and feelings about them and be a sounding board for my students. This is much harder to do when the tragedies affecting students also affect me personally.

I returned from vacation last week to find out that one of my students had died. A wonderful, funny, bright, charming, creative, silly eleven year old girl fell out of a window and died. For the second time in my teaching career I’m the last teacher a student will ever have.

It’s hard to explain how heavily this weighs on me. I try to remember what my last words to her were. Did I make sure she knew how wonderful I thought she was? Did I do all I could to make her last year in school all it could be? Did I spend our time doing things that really mattered?

I also feel a sense of responsibility. As a teacher it’s part of that relationship with a student that we take that on. When students go on and achieve success we feel a sense of shared pride in their accomplishments, that in a way we had a hand in it. In the same way I wonder if I did enough to prevent this tragedy. I know this is irrational but the questions niggle away at the edge of my consciousness.

Some of her classmates came to the visitation for her a couple of days ago. I was repeatedly being pulled out of my own grief and towards trying to help them make sense of what had happened. The awful part about it was that, of course, I had no answers for them, no reassurances. I wanted to reach out them, to connect with them, but I had nothing to say. They already knew the truth.

When we return to school after labour day those students, and many others, will need support and help in dealing with what’s happened. I know that, as their teacher, I’m best placed to give them that support. But I really don’t know where that’s going to come from. How can I help them to understand something that I don’t understand? How can I tell them it’s going to be ok, when I’m not sure it will?

For now, my hope is that simply being there will be enough. That letting them know it will take time, and that if they need support I’ll be there. I plan to be as honest as I can, and admit when there are things I don’t have answers to. I know that both they and I will have other support. I plan on using it, and I hope they will too.

I’ll also keep those questions in the front of my mind as I’m teaching. Do my students know how wonderful I think they are? Am I doing all I can to make this a great experience for them? Am I spending my time doing the things that really matter?

22 Responses to “The Last Teacher: A Tragedy”

  1. Becky Bair August 24, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

    I am so sorry for your loss. While this must have been a terribly difficult post to write, I’m so glad you did. I will make sure that each of my kids knows, every single day, how wonderful I think they are. Your students are lucky to have you.

  2. Jan Scheidt August 24, 2013 at 4:31 pm #

    Well said, Andrew, on a difficult subject. We will have to discuss this as a staff to help all of us cope with this tragedy…

  3. Colin Jagoe August 24, 2013 at 7:01 pm #

    Oh man Andrew. So sorry to hear about this. Dealing with these kinds of things is never easy, thanks for the post and the candor. All the best to you and all in your school community.

  4. thecleversheep August 24, 2013 at 7:20 pm #

    One of the key lessons teachers need to share, is that we don’t have all the answers. Like our students, we are on journeys of discovery. Journeys that are at times terribly painful.

    I’m sure you know that, and I hope you’ll be comfortable being human whether celebrating, grieving or learning. Please accept my condolences on your loss. Know that you are in good company on your journey.

  5. Fred Galang (@NomadCreatives) August 24, 2013 at 8:04 pm #

    I believe that our sincerity as educators lies in the fact that we don’t know all the answers (and not to pretend to know). Our students need the reassurance that we’re all in this together, hoping and anticipating that things get better. That’s all we can do. Sorry for your loss. It never gets easier but hope is far too strong to keep down.

  6. rajalingam August 24, 2013 at 8:22 pm #

    Andrew that is tough. Your presence as a caring and loving (a word we don’t use often enough) teacher is the answer. Grief exists as unanswereable questions, what-ifs and occaisionally joyful rememberences. As I believe you are saying It is important that our students see us wresting with this too. Our role at these times, and again this is my belief, is to help students IN their pain, not shelter them from it.

    Thanks so much for your open sharing.

  7. Debbie Axiak August 24, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

    I am so sorry for your loss and the painful days ahead. Please continue to talk about this student in September and beyond. As a class or group you can remember all of her wonderful qualities, perhaps together you can create a garden, a mural or some other project or initiative that she would have liked. Working together, talking about her, and remembering her will be difficult, but it will help you all through your grief and will keep her memory alive.

  8. Albert Fong August 25, 2013 at 4:07 am #

    What a tough way to start a school year. Hang in there, Andrew.

    Birth, aging, illness, and death are part of nature. Although it’s sad, death helps us value our time together a little more. Thank you for sharing.

  9. John Fladd (@woodenmask) August 25, 2013 at 8:20 am #

    I lost a student this summer, too. I’m still trying to come to terms with it. I can look at the situation logically, but my feelings won’t fit neatly into any of the boxes I construct for them.

  10. Carrie Rice August 25, 2013 at 8:21 am #

    I am so sorry.

  11. Mary Heenan August 25, 2013 at 9:37 am #

    My condolences to you both Andrew and John. I cannot imagine losing a student, but do know the horrible position of helping students work through grief. We lost a teacher in an accident on his way to work last fall. I couldn’t imagine how I’d get through the day, let alone guide 23 small people through it. But we cried and we laughed at the good memories. They were awkward moments and joyous memories all year. You don’t have all the answers but you do have one amazing strength — your passion for your students. You draw on that and you get through the class, the day, the week. My thoughts will be with you through those tough days.

  12. Colinda August 25, 2013 at 1:54 pm #

    Andrew,

    I am sorry for your loss. It is so incredibly sad to lose a young person, and jarring, like there is something amiss in the timelines of the universe.

    Your thoughts on what it means to be the last teacher are incredibly moving for me. I have been one of the last teachers (secondary school) too many times, and more funerals for students than I ever expected in 21 years of teaching. I too hope that the students knew how I felt about them. I was instantly brought back to the moment when I arrived at school in May 2011 to find all of my friends on staff in my room waiting for me. It was only a split second for me to realize the news they had. I was too close to that situation (resource teacher for student for four years, did her homeschooling when she was too sick to attend, visited her in the hospital, when she was well she babysat my son) to be that “pillar” of support I can be, that we may be expected to be. I loved her, and feel blessed that I had the opportunity to know her and be a small part of her life. I do believe that allowing our students to see us as we grieve may be one of the most important roles we can model.

    Thank you for this post. I know from your words, here and on twitter that you truly care about your young charges: that’s all they will need to know as you grieve together. I hope that your thoughts may give pause to everyone who works with kids as we prepare for new students in a new school year as to what is truly important in our jobs.

    Kindest regards, Colinda.

  13. Carol August 26, 2013 at 6:56 am #

    Very sorry for your loss and your schools loss. Your school community, you and the family are in my thoughts.

    • hollyboardman August 26, 2013 at 7:16 am #

      I know this is a “professional blog”, but I would like to advise you to turn to the source of your strength and life as you deal with this. Even teachers need the Lord. I will pray for you and your class. (BTW, I am a retired United Methodist pastor, and a second-career teacher.)

  14. Philip Cummings August 26, 2013 at 2:25 pm #

    Andrew, I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m thinking of you and your community.

  15. Tracy Bachellier August 26, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

    Heartbreaking, Andrew, truly heartbreaking. As you have done before, and continue to do so, allow your sincerity, honesty and openness help guide you. Share with your students that you really don’t know where that support is going to come from. Share with them that your struggling to help them understand something that you don’t understand yourself. Share with them that you’re not sure things will be OK, but that together, you can help find the ways to support each other through this tragedy. From vulnerability comes strength and courage…my thoughts are with you all…

  16. Lisa noble August 28, 2013 at 8:11 am #

    Andrew:
    Thank you for this, and for the Auden, which is always where I turn when I need to “stop all the clocks”. Sharing your grief with your community is a great thing to do, and that might be one of the strategies I’d share with my students…..when somebody I love dies, I need to talk to other people about them, and get some help figuring out what to do with how I’m feeling.

    I’ll be thinking about you, and your kids, in the weeks to come, as you work around the student-shaped hole in your world.

  17. John T. Spencer September 3, 2013 at 12:44 pm #

    Thank you for the beautiful post. I’m so sorry for the loss.

  18. SStewart September 7, 2013 at 10:20 am #

    I hope your first week back at school has helped you and the school community with this loss. I have seen the grief that a school community can share after the loss of a former student who has long since been at the school, and can imagine the extra weight of being the recent “last teacher”. I am sure that will continue to strengthen you ahead though. Take care and time this year.

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  1. OTR Links 08/26/2013 | doug --- off the record - August 26, 2013

    […] The Last Teacher: A Tragedy | Looking Up […]

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