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Lessons Learned: When a Student Dies

Frances Peacock
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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?

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Frances Peacock

Comments (20) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

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.

Dawn Thomas's picture

My heart is breaking today because I am living your experience. I am a first grade teacher from up north in Indiana. We celebrated Valentines Day yesterday and I sent my students on their merry way for the weekend. One won't be coming back on Monday. She was killed today in a white-out accident. I'm just looking for help in how to support my students on Monday. I know they will lead by their needs, but is there any way I can prepare myself for that day?

JaxTeacher's picture

I lost three students this past year due to violence and I am finding it impossible to cope. I wake up to nightmares and find myself second guessing every conversation I had with those students. I don't know what to do.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

JaxTeacher, that's horrible. I'm so sorry--for the students' families, for your school, and you.

Don't underestimate the impact something like this can have on you. As a teacher, you're used to be the person that people go to for help, but there are times when you need help too. This is one of them. Seek out help, including professional help.

Lisa Orson's picture

I lost a student two years ago to suicide. With all this talk about Trump & how he responded to the young army officer who died, it seems every parent who has lost a child had come out in support of his parents, which they should. I am NOT a parent.... yet, I have lost a child....

Brianne Buckner's picture
Brianne Buckner
High School Business Education Teacher

I know this blog is old, but I came across it while trying to find help for myself. I have only been teaching for 4 years, but with the loss of 3 students in one accident at the beginning of summer is making my question my decision. This is our first week back and I have cried off and on all day. Every time I hear their name or even think about our interactions I can feel the tears coming. I am scared to speak to my peers because I am afraid they will judge or assume my relationship went beyond just teacher and student. Two of them I have seen grown up before my eyes in their 4 years of high school and one had plans of entering my class this year. But the one sided contract really makes sense to me and I never thought about it like that.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Brianne, I'm so sorry. Teaching High School gives one a window into four turbulent, powerful, amazing years of growth and seeing the growth end's just not supposed to happen that way, is it? Can you reach out to the Employee Assistance program through your Human Resources office? Was grief counseling arranged by the school or district? Is there a non-school friend or mentor you can talk with? Be gentle with yourself. Grief takes the time it takes and, as a new teacher, you're going down this road for the first time. (Hopefully the only time.)

Karen Bloom's picture
Karen Bloom
7th Grade Math and Special Ed Math Teacher

I was a mentor for a student from 2nd grade to the end of 10th when he died in a drowning accident. I'm still devastated and starting therapy tomorrow. I'm reaching out to see if others who are going through (or have already gone through) something similar would like to start a support group. It could be a facebook group where we share stories and support each other through the ups and downs of this unique type of grief: the not-the-parent but lost a child, afraid someone will think something untoward about the relationship, teacher/mentor grief. Please contact me if you'd like to participate: kbloom at (use the @ instead of at). Thank you. I look forward to connecting.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

Karen, I'm so sorry for your loss. I'm glad to hear you are getting some support and it's such a great idea to start a support group for others. You might want to write a community post using this link: to invite others to join you. Best of luck and remember to take good care of yourself.

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