Back to school teacher meetings for my school start at the end of this week and the first day of class is next Wednesday. Usually, this is a stressful, but fun blur of a week filled with post-it notes, to-do lists, meetings, and classroom decorating. This year is different. A few days ago I received the devastating news that my little brother passed away. In that instant all of the lesson plans and school supplies fell to the absolute bottom of my priority list. While writing this blog post is a somewhat cathartic experience for me, I think it can also be a help to others in a variety of difficult situations. In my ten years teaching, I’ve witnessed countless teachers navigate the classroom while battling loss, divorce, miscarriage, home fire, bankruptcy, legal troubles, depression, and many other emotionally intense situations. Although I do not think there is only one way to balance personal trauma and classroom teaching, I want to share my tips in this area and I invite you to leave comments, questions, and advice in the comment section below.
- Communicate proactively: If you are going through something that will impact your attendance or performance as a teacher, I think that it is better to communicate proactively. Many times administrators and colleagues will jump in to support you if they know what is going on. Chances are you will also have a better substitute situation if you let your administrator know that the days off may be coming. Even if you are not sure which days you will need a simple heads up will likely lead to easier coverage.
- Communicate professionally: Know your administrator and share details only as appropriate. I tend to keep the details close to the vest unless the situation necessitates more sharing. You may consider writing an email instead of a call or face-to-face meeting. I’m a crier and my boss would likely not understand what I’m saying after the first sentence or two. It’s also usually best to avoid people seeing you leaving the principal’s office with tears streaking down your cheeks. That is a quick way to start the high school rumor mill and you have enough on your plate as it is.
- Allow others to help: Most teachers I know are control freaks to some degree. I usually feel like I must leave foolproof step by step instructions for every minute of sub time, but sometimes that just can’t happen. A few years ago I had to leave the classroom for a few weeks while I battled post-partum depression. When I came back, a found a small miracle. The classroom had not fallen apart. The curriculum had not suffered. My department members had rallied together and taken care of everything. If you have a co-worker, department chair, assistant principal, or other person on campus who offers to help, swallow your pride and take them up on it.
- Decide what to share in the classroom: It is very important to decide exactly what you will say when you return (if you take time off) or when you have an emotional moment (if you work through the pain). Off the cuff, you may over share or lose control of your emotions. While I don’t think it is wrong in every circumstance to share your grief with teens, it must be productive or quick if mentioned at all. You know your school and can make the decision with care. For example, at my school, it would be frowned upon for a teacher to discuss a boyfriend/girlfriend break up or financial problem, but other traumas can be instructive. When I teach Tennyson’s “In Memoriam AHH”, I mention briefly the impact of the untimely loss of a good friend and fellow teacher. When I teach Emily Dickinson’s “Certain Slant of Light” I mention the very real struggle with depression that many face, including myself. A word of caution: Be mindful that students may have experienced relatable pain. While it can be healing to see that they are not alone, it can also be an incredibly destructive force if done without care. Read your audience and plan your words carefully.
- Don’t rush yourself: Good teachers want to get back to the classroom as soon as possible. It may be cathartic to keep busy. The mounting sick day total may be causing stress. Evaluate all of the factors before going back into the classroom. Remember good teachers must also take care of themselves in order to be effective to their students.
We’d love to hear your comments, questions, or suggestions below. If you found this post while going through your own pain, please know my heart is with you. Teachers have to stick together.