George Lucas Educational Foundation
Mental Health

Advice on How to Survive Students' Personal Tragedies

September 24, 2014

The following is a veteran teacher's response to a plea for help on how to not get eaten up by students' personal tragedies. The teacher goes by the handle of lintelotiel, and this is what s/he wrote:

I've walked students through a lot of trash -- suicide of a student, death of a parent, divorce, eating disorders, drugs, depression, various anxieties, sexual/physical/neglectful abuse, etc. I know what you're feeling, and it's terribly hard to keep yourself grounded in the midst of the literal horror that is everyday life for some of these students.

The first thing I realised in the midst of these situations is that how you view yourself and your role makes a big difference to how well you can help and how well you cope with your own emotions.

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Personally, I view myself as a coach. I can't control the situation to make it better for them (though I can call the parents, cops, or child services when necessary). Instead I teach them to manage the situation and try to talk through what they can do to be safe, to work hard, and make life better.

The context of your school makes a big difference -- talk to your counselors, older (hopefully wiser) teachers, whoever is responsible for student welfare above just the class teacher level. When you find situations you don't know what advice to give, encourage the student to talk to someone else who can help, or you talk to those people on their behalf.

Be aware of the laws for what to report, to whom and when and never try to sidestep them.

Life is tough, and it's never fair. I start the conversation with students there and talk them through how to cope with the hard things.

Protect yourself. If you're not emotionally settled, you'll end up damaging yourself, sick, burned out, and unable to help the student who needs it. When you're not in a good spot or just not settled after learning about a situation -- go see the counselor yourself just to talk it through.

I tell my students that I see my school's counselor occasionally -- for me, not just for them -- because life's tough and everyone needs a trustworthy outsider to talk through hard things for good advice. It's good practice for you and good for students not to feel seeing a counselor has a stigma of "you're crazy" or "not coping". Teaching is hard work, but for too many students the only time they get positive attention from an adult is from their teachers and that has the power to change their entire lives.

The original discussion happened on Reddit. (Warning: it includes some mature language.)

For tips on how to help these students, check out Alex Shevrin's 8 Ways to Support Students Who Experience Trauma.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.

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  • Mental Health
  • New Teachers
  • Teacher Wellness