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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Lessons Learned: When a Student Dies

Frances Peacock

First grade teacher from Indianapolis, Indiana

Editor's Note: Frances Peacock has been an elementary teacher for twenty years. She teaches in a high-poverty area in the Indianapolis Public School District.

A teacher works for the future.

Every August, a group of first graders enters my classroom. I teach them how to read and write, I tie their shoes, and in June, I send them on to second grade. As soon as I meet them, I push them ahead, swiftly: "Onward and upward we go, children!" It's the way the system works.

But recently, for one teacher at another school, the future stopped cold.

She dismissed her students on a Friday afternoon and on Saturday, one of them died. The child was taken in an instant, from her family, her friends, and her school.

On Monday morning the teacher faced an empty desk, bewildered students, shock and sadness.

I can't make sense of this. I don't know how I'd cope with the loss of a student. But it seems to me, that, along with the terrible grief, I would feel that a deal had been broken.

I've always had a quiet arrangement with my students. It's a one-sided contract I've never told them about. If I were to put this deal in writing, it would read something like this:

I, the teacher, will have you, the student, in my class for one year. After that, I may never see you again. But I will spend the rest of my days entertaining hopes and dreams for your future success.

My students are heading off to do great things, I am certain. I have visions of grandeur for each child: The actress will go to her Broadway stage, the Supreme Court Justice to his Bench, the Naval Commander to his ship.

When a student dies, those dreams are wiped away. The hopes are gone. The deal is off.

A teacher must look backward, not forward, to see that particular child: She is sitting at her desk. She is turning the jump rope on the playground. She is crying because she left her gym shoes at home. She is planning to grow up like the rest of the class.

But it's not going to happen.

Every year there are teachers who lose students to illness and tragedy. I wonder how this changes them.

Those teachers have learned how fragile life can be. They've found out that once in a while, there is no next year; and the biggest days of a person's life might be playing out right in front of their own desk.

I bet those teachers slow things down. They probably don't push quite so hard. You won't hear any of them hollering, "Hurry up, we're late for science!" in the hallway.

They are the teachers who give an extra 15 minutes for recess, just because the weather is warm and the sky is pretty. They sit on the carpet and read three stories in a row until their voice gives out, because the children are loving the performance. They let the class run through all nine tubs of poster paints and don't think about the mess until after school. They know every moment matters. They know it's their job to be joyful.

I see what a fine balance it is, to care about the future, but also cherish a day of childhood. To know that my first graders must be ready for law school someday, but that other work must be done as well - work that fills the soul in the here and now.

And so this morning, I have a different set of plans. I'm going to give everyone a diamond shape to trace. I'll pass out the orange paper, the wooden sticks, and the string.

The spelling and math will have to wait. Right now, tomorrow's lawyers have some kites to put together.

Have you experienced the loss of a student? How would you support someone else who has?

Frances Peacock

First grade teacher from Indianapolis, Indiana
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SteveHayes_RB60's picture
SteveHayes_RB60
Band Director

Needless to say experiencing the death of a student is a difficult, gut-wrenching ordeal. I served as a pallbearer for a 7th grade girl who died from leukemia (12 years later my daughter was diagnosed with leukemia, but survived), lost a student to an unknown heart defect, lost a student in a car crash, and most recently lost a former student serving in Iraq. All have been difficult. Below are the two biggest things I have learned from these experiences.

Students often do not know how to grieve. For many students this may be the first time experiencing the death of a peer. They don't know if they should be crying or if they should feel bad that they are not crying. The first I would suggest to do is to explain to them that we all feel bad, and that we all are grieving and that no two people go through the grieving process the same way. Explain to them that it's OK to grieve differently.

The second thing to do is try to get back to a normal routine as soon as possible. Following the death of a high school student who was a car crash (she died on a Sunday and I had to face the students 1st period on Monday) I explained how we grieve differently, I cried with the students, and I said that one of the best things we could do for our emotional health was to return to our normal routine (high school band). That doing this wasn't disrespectful, but was a necessary step that needed to taken. Procrastinating going back to a routine was actually hurtful and that Lindsay (the girl who died) wouldn't want that for us. Rehearsing music gave us an emotional outlet that the students and I need that morning. Later that day the school counselor said, "When I heard the band playing, I knew we would be OK."

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