I love to share my favorite tech tools for teachers or tips for back to school night, but today I want to share something that I don't love. I don't love standing in front of a full class when absolutely NO ONE is ready to think about gerunds or character development. I don't love to be the adult they are looking at when their heart is breaking. Unfortunately, as teachers we are likely to be put in this position at least once in our careers. I'm talking about teaching the first classes after tragedy. My school has experienced this twice in the recent past and in both circumstances I was completely unprepared. A few years ago, one of my school's most beloved teachers passed away suddenly and then last week, a popular and outgoing student from my school committed suicide. These losses hit us like a ton of bricks. I wish that I could say that they are part of rare, tragic occurrences for teens in school, but here are some staggering statistics to the contrary:
- According to Everytown research, there have been 152 school shootings since 2013. (Note: other sites come up with different numbers, but I'd say even 1 is too many)
- According to the Jason Foundation, suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18, and each day in our nation there are an average of over 5,400 attempts by young people grades 7-12.
And statistics cannot even begin to cover the number of tragic losses of a member of the school community through illness, car crashes, or other circumstance.
I don't think we can ever really be prepared for these types of situations, but I here are some resources that may help if you find yourself standing in front of a room of teens feeling a tragedy:
- Click here for some great advice from Hospice about helping teens cope with grief.
- This Dougy Center article is a great reminder that there is no one size fits all approach to teen grief.
- UC Davis has some more solid advice and a number adults can call to talk to someone about concerns for teens adjusting to death.
It is so hard to generalize advice, since the circumstances surrounding tragedy can vary so incredibly, but here are the few pieces I hold near to my heart when approaching heartbroken classes:
- Be authentic. Teens (and kids in general) are very perceptive. They know when you are faking it and it isn't very helpful. Without creating chaos, be as true to your emotions as possible. Try not to encourage teens or yourself to "just be strong" to "get over it". Watching you grieve, can actually be very helpful in their process. Taking care of your mental health is vital to being a support for others.
- Be gentle. Try not to force teens to process on your terms or push them to talk/write about the tragedy before they are ready. If you want them to be able to talk or write with you, consider posting an invitation to do so on your board or website, so students can go at their own pace. Also, be sensitive to emotional triggers in your curriculum and treat them with care.
- Be there when the quiet sets in. The first few days or weeks after a tragedy, there are likely counselors and other support services in place. However, supports are often gone MUCH before the grieving process has come to a stable place. In gentle ways, let students know if you are available for ongoing support. If you are not able to be support, let them know who they can turn to.
- Be vigilant. Watch for signs of depression, self-harm, or instability and reach out to the administration or counseling staff at your school for help supporting that student.
- Be nonjudgmental. Everyone grieves differently. Try not to judge the ones who may do it differently than you. Some will party, engage in risky behaviors, or disengage from school. That does not mean that they aren't still hurting. Be sensitive.
Have you experienced tragedy in your school? Do you have advice for others?