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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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Comments (11)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jodi Gleason's picture
Jodi Gleason
English teacher

In my five years of teaching I have had to help students through the suicides of 3 of their classmates. While I only had 1 of the young men in class, it still changed me as a teacher to work with the friends left behind with so many unanswered questions. Honestly, this last suicide was the hardest because I had been down this sad road of recovery with students twice before and I didn't know if I had it in me to do again. It is not easy to look in the eyes of a teenager who feels like their entire world is crashing in on them. The pain, hurt, sadness, and fear inside those eyes will change you. It drains a person physically, mentally, and emotionally to watch children suffer with such grief. The last young man, I had in class the year before. I can't begin to imagine what kind of turmoil could have been bad enough for him to want to take his own life. His friends couldn't either and that is the hardest thing for them to accept. They all feel lonely, depressed, oppressed, scared, and ugly but this friend took things to a whole new level. I have cried with, prayed for, and talked with my fair share of hurting students.
I do believe that these deaths have made me a better teacher. I cannot simply look at my students as numbers or standardized test takers. They are individuals each with their own set of problems at school, home, and work. I listen to them when they talk to me and I try very hard to never treat them like they don't matter.

Ann Hyde's picture
Ann Hyde
Special Ed English teacher, Anchorage, Alaska

I have had three times when I lost students or former students, and a few times when there were near-deaths. All were accidental. One of them was a double tragedy; two kids were fooling around with a gun, and one accidentally shot the other one. I went to a funeral and the jail in the same week. What we did in class was talk and cry and write. I let the kids take the lead, and we processed as we needed to. The shooting was especially difficult because there were kids who were understandably angry and full of blame and accusation. I have also lost two colleagues: one to suicide, and one in an avalanche. These were more difficult than the student deaths, I think. Everyone was absolutely stricken. What all of these experiences taught me is that I want to be the kind of teacher who is kind. I want to be the one who realizes when it is more important to grieve than to review for a test. Routines can provide the structure to assist in the healing, but all of us need to process and take the time to heal. I think we all get a sense of when to fall back into the routines and the lessons. And my students are very good about letting me know if they need some time with individual talks.

Steve Francis's picture

Hi Frances
I love your post and it really highlights a challenging time for many teachers. I provide articles designed to boost morale in schools and reduce teacher stress. I'd love to share your post through an article (appropriately attributed to you) and am seeking your approval.

Frances Peacock's picture
Frances Peacock
First grade teacher from Indianapolis, Indiana
Blogger

Hello Steve. Yes, feel free to share the article. Frances

Debbie Carchidi's picture
Debbie Carchidi
HIgh School History Teacher

Ms. Peacock, Your article brought me back to my students who have passed on. I know throughout my 30 years as a high school teacher the pain never really goes away. I lost two students in one year, both to car accidents. One young man was driving his new car in the rain and lost control I found out he was dead when listening to the 6PM news that evening. Two months later a young woman in the same class period was walking her dog when a car sped around the corner, she pushed her friend and dog out of the way and took the full brunt of the hit from the car, she died two days later. It has been years since these children died but I still mourn their loss. Their potential for doing great things, their love of life and their families is all lost. It is such a tragedy when we lose them so young. I understand the loss that will always be a part of you as a teacher.

Frances Peacock's picture
Frances Peacock
First grade teacher from Indianapolis, Indiana
Blogger

Ann, Jodi, Debbie and Steve,

Thanks to each of you for lending your unique voices to this discussion. The stories you relate are so vivid. We never forget our students, do we?

Frances

Jason Diodati's picture

Reading your blog really brought up some emotions for me. I teach high school science at a charter school in a low-income area of a large city, and have had to deal with this topic at least once every year. I have had students die from illness, car accidents, murder and suicide, and they all cause pain and a sense of loss. I have tried to attend every funeral and be there for the families and students every time a tragedy occurs. However, disturbing as this may sound, I feel the students in this community are so immune to the pain that they don't properly express themselves and see death as a normal part of their life. It seems like all too often the students make jokes to laugh off the pain instead of confronting it and dealing with it. From this, I see students drop out or fail classes because they didn't properly deal with the pain of losing a friend or fellow student. Thankfully our school has just hired a grievance counselor to help with these situations. I hope that with this new outlet we might see higher levels of performance and more emotional stability from our students.

Frances Peacock's picture
Frances Peacock
First grade teacher from Indianapolis, Indiana
Blogger

Jason, I think you've really highlighted the need for grievance counselors in school districts. I'm glad your school has hired someone. Take care and God bless. Frances

Rhonda Vobr's picture

My daughter who teaches preschool lost one of her students during this school year in a horrific car accident.
She turned to me first as to how to handle the information with her class. Young children do not understand what is going on, but they are listening and observing how people around them handle death. I had purchased some books for her dealing with death of loved ones so she was able to use those with her children. One of them talked about keeping the loved ones in your heart. She had the kids cut out hearts with "Olivia" written on it. They colored the hearts while they talked about memories of Olivia. Our area education agency sent grief counselors who were wonderful.

KC Bailey's picture
KC Bailey
8th grade English teacher - Athens, Alabama

My cheer squad suffered a loss in 2007 when a member died suddenly of Bacterial Meningitis. Being a member of my son's class too, I was especially close with Jessica, her family and the other girls. She was a strong cheerleader, drama student, and a friend to everyone. Our school was devastated. The girls and I joined her family's wish to begin a scholarship in her name. Selling t-shirts, wrist bands, hosting fun-walks, pageants, ugly walks - you name it; we did it to raise money for the scholarship and The National Meningitis Association. We began to heal. Doing for Jessica's family and her memory helped us through the grief.

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