Dealing With Death

Year: 1

The week in which I learned about my student’s death was a haze. I did not know how to comfort my students or best control my classes. As I navigated the waters of a teacher working with grieving students, I tried myself to grieve. I felt oddly and uncomfortably functional. I expected to fall apart, but did not. It took me several days to understand how deeply not okay I was – not spending time with friends, not exercising, sleeping far more than necessary, and not really doing anything at all outside of work. I’d go home, eat, and sort of wander around or lay in bed until it was even close to an acceptable time to sleep. I repeated that process for the week leading up to her funeral.

I didn’t really talk to anyone about her. I had a few conversations, here or there, but I never opened up fully. A few days before the wake, I emailed a former high school teacher of mine, Mr. Lee. He was one of my favorite teachers; I’d considered him a mentor as a teenager, and I remembered that he’d taught in an inner-city school like mine. In his reply, Mr. Lee offered to call me and discuss everything.

That conversation was very likely the reason I made it through the following weeks. I sat on the floor of my bedroom, telling my former teacher about it all: my students, the school, the level of trauma and poverty in the area surrounding my school, my student who died, the wake and funeral that I would soon attend. I cried, a lot, as my teacher talked about his experiences working with similar kids. We discussed coping skills and how to move forward in the classroom, and for as long as I live, I will remember him saying to me repeatedly: “They may not act like it, Torey, but they need you. These kids need you really fucking badly right now.” It would be the only time I felt comfortable enough to cry about her death and about the overwhelming stress I felt; it would be the only time I would have a full, difficult, necessary conversation about an impossibly painful experience.

The week following my student’s death did not offer me much opportunity to process and grieve. On the day of her funeral, one week after my receiving the news, teachers in Arizona called for a statewide strike. I chose to attend the funeral rather than go to the strikes. I stood with our school’s principals, as well as a few other teachers who wanted to join us. While teachers around the state were preparing for protests at the capitol, I stood at the funeral, desperately hoping that never again would I hear the cry of a mother and father who have lost their young daughter.

The strike lasted almost two full weeks. Following my student’s funeral, I found myself swept along a current of protests, coffee with teachers to talk about the strike, many, many conversations regarding politics in the education system. I did not speak about her in those following weeks, trying to focus on the strikes, worrying about the safety of my employment as a first-year teacher. The clearest benefit of this strike to me, personally, was the way it shoved me out of my zombie-like state I’d been in prior to the strikes. By the time the strikes ended, though, I just remember a powerful sense of relief that I could go back to my classroom with the students I’d last seen on funeral grounds. I wanted to be back in the classroom. I wanted to finally end that year.

I don’t think I have more than one or two conversations about my student after the teacher strikes. Those conversations, if they could be called that, consisted of a sentence or two on my part before moving on to a different topic. Until about midsummer, when the panic attacks began, I did not realize how much I’d kept buried.

I would wake up in the middle of the night, sweating or crying or both, the lingering scenes of my dreams still present. The dreams were almost always the same, with a changing cast: a funeral, seeing the casket, seeing people standing at the lowering of the casket. The dreams became increasingly difficult: it began with family members, but by the last dream, it was me in the casket. Until I woke up from that dream – a panicked, terrifying confrontation of my own mortality – I didn’t realize how little I’d addressed the death of my student.

The day after I learned of her death, I went to my tattoo artist. On my wrist now sits an M., the first letter of my student’s first name. She always talked about my tattoos – joking once with a friend that their parents would let them get tattoos in eighth grade, trying to convince me they were telling the truth – and it felt an appropriate way to honor and remember her. It is also a daily reminder that life is fragile, not guaranteed. It is a reminder that, for all the times they test me and frustrate me and try to truly cause me pain, my students are, at their core, children who need help and support. M. reminds me every day to be a little kinder, and a little more present and appreciative of the time I do have every day.

The Death of a Student

Year: 1

Last year, in the last few months before summer, one of my students died. She was twelve years old.

It’s been about five months since her death, and I still don’t quite know how to talk about it. I was never prepared to encounter such a difficulty. I’ve been told by many people that it’s rare, and several teachers I know have never experienced this. It is, without a doubt, the worst part of this job.

One of the teachers in my department had been through this, with two different students, and we spoke a lot during that first week. During one of those conversations, she said, “With this job, you don’t just sign up to teach them. You sign up to love them.” That’s always stayed with me, and has always felt particularly powerful to me. When there is the death of a student, it will be painful, regardless of who that student was. It doesn’t even need to be a student in your class; at the end of the day, your job is to teach and protect kids, and one of the kids in your school is gone. A lot of teachers in my school grieved that week, even without having known my student.

I was given the news first, being one of her teachers, and had about an hour to process the information before I had to tell my next class the information. Other teachers offered to cover my class if I thought I wouldn’t be able to get through the news. I turned them down. It wasn’t that I was confident I would be okay; I just didn’t want someone other than their teacher giving them news like that.

We gave the news in the following class, so that all students would find out at once, rather than by gossip spreading. It was excruciatingly difficult; most kids, by the afternoon, were already in tears when class began. I decided to take give the day to the students, telling them they could work on missing or late assignments if they felt up to it, but really giving them the space and time to process the information.

That day was painful. The remainder of the week was messy, hazy. I did not know if I was grieving too much, or too little. I did not know if I was handling the information very well or poorly, and did not know if I was helping or hurting the students with how I treated class. I felt, in the days following her death, like I’d forgotten how to teach. All I knew how to do was tell my students I cared about them.

Dealing with her death has lingered with me, and I am still learning how to process and heal. How to teach, how to be in control of the classroom in the wake of such an event, was a learning experience for me. Learning how to take care of myself when I felt suddenly overwhelmed with responsibility for the students, as if again for the first time, was enormously difficult. I will likely write separately about all of those in turn, as I learn how to write about them. For anyone who may have experienced, or may be experiencing currently, the death of a student in their school: I am sorry, and I hope you are okay. Take care of your kids, but also take care of yourself. Remember that you are allowed to grieve, too, in so many ways, in the ways that feel right for you to grieve. Let yourself be human. It will get better with time.

The Call Home

Year: 1

My mom is a teacher. For much of her career, she taught special ed preschool, but she’s also taught several other grades at the elementary level. She’s currently finishing her PhD so that she can teach college students how to become teachers. She is the picturesque preschool teacher: incredibly kind, optimistic, enthusiastic, and patient as a saint. She always knew that she wanted to be a teacher; my mom has always been one of the teachers to consider her profession a calling.

By October, I didn’t know how to tell her that I hated my job.

I refrained from calling my family and talking honestly about teaching. It always seemed too difficult to discuss without crying, and after the help they’d given me to get through college and become a teacher, I didn’t want them to feel like their help had gone to waste. I also didn’t know if they would understand how difficult this particular job was. Even though we already had a teacher in the family before I graduate, I couldn’t remember hearing stories from my mom about the experiences I was seeing in my classroom. I especially didn’t want to disappoint my mom, who had been so supportive of me and so excited when I expressed the desire to become a teacher.

One day, during lunch, I called my mom. In the silence of my classroom, hoping that no teachers or students would walk in, I broke down in tears. I told my mom about my students’ lives, how their behavior had only worsened throughout the year, how I didn’t feel effective, how I didn’t like my job, how I was afraid I’d chosen the wrong profession. Every part of this job seemed impossibly hard. Being the wonderful person she is, my mom listened and gave me advice I’d needed to hear.

“I’d been worried to tell you, because of how you feel about teaching,” I confessed to her, trying to quiet my tearful breathing. My mom laughed a bit before responding: “Oh, Torey, I didn’t enjoy teaching until at least year three.”

Oh wow. Pitiful as it is, I had never considered how my mom may have struggled during her first few years of teaching. She went on to remind me that every teacher has been in my position, crying in frustration at his or her desk. If a teacher acts like that hasn’t happened, my mom told me, that teacher lied. That conversation was a small but important turning point for me; I didn’t yet have solid relationships with my colleagues, my friends were still struggling with their first years of teaching, and I still had a difficult and stressful job to do, but I had the important reminder that I was not alone or abnormal or weak in my stress.

What that statement says about teaching as a profession is up to interpretation, and also up to how optimistic or pessimistic you are as a person. I feel distinctly better this year compared to last year, though I’m not yet in the dreaded October (cue horror movie music), so it’s difficult to say for certain right now.

But, I think, it’s important for teachers (like me) to remember that this is a difficult job because it’s a job for humans, and humans are messy and difficult. It is far more stressful than a “normal” job, and if you’re not stressed during your first year of teaching, you’re either lying to me or you’re superhuman. (No offense, but you’re probably not superhuman, so you might as well be honest here.) That first confession that someone makes about how extremely ridiculously insanely difficult the first year of teaching is – to your mom, friend, girlfriend, colleague, whoever – is an important confession. It is the first step to leaning on other people for support and help, which is absolutely necessary in a job like this. First year teachers, don’t be like me. Don’t wait until October to admit that it’s hard. Make that phone call home.

Being the Better Person

Think about the best teachers you’ve known. Maybe they were your teachers when you were in school, maybe you have known them since becoming an adult. My guess is the person you pictured acts like a human Buddha: fairly laid-back (in personality, not teaching style), rarely offended by any comment or situation, friendly, and above all else, compassionate.

Now, that person may have had the foundations for that personality, but I’m pretty convinced teaching played a role in making them the person you know. Throughout my first year of teaching, I became very aware of something incredibly important, something that I’d heard few people discuss. Being a teacher is basically a practice in being the better person.

Kid throws a poster board at you? Be the better person. Kid calls you ugly to your face, or says you walk like a penguin? Be the better person. Kid walks out of your room screaming – in late March – that he’s going to get his schedule changed so he doesn’t ever have to see your stupid face again? Be the better person.

If I have to guess, very conservatively, I’d say there’s one time every day or two when I really have to work at being the better person. Kids are tough to be around sometimes; humans are tough to be around sometimes. They say mean things, and you’re supposed to care about them anyway. They insult you, or disrespect you, or defy you, and you’re supposed to do your best to teach them anyway. You always, without exception, need to be the better person.

There have been times that I definitely was not the better person. I am a human, like all other teachers, and I have definitely lost my cool. One very painful example is from last year, with one of my boys. This kid was very difficult to teach: he’d suffered extreme abuse before entering into the school year, probably had undiagnosed PTSD, and was bouncing from home to home until summer break. These traumas outside of the classroom led to terrible behavior in the classroom.

At one point in the year, he told me that he wanted to be my student aide when he moved to eighth grade. I jumped on that idea; taking him to the front office after class, I asked for an impromptu meeting with the assistant principal and the guidance counselor, pitched the idea, and basically spent a half hour rooting for him. We set up a goal: he change negative behavior and start trying more in class, and we’ll let him be a student aide, even if it was past the deadline.

He was horrible in class the next day. I mean, really, really horrible. He refused to do work, talked over me while I spoke to the entire class, talked to and bothered all students around him, threw pencils, the works. I held him back after class. As soon as the last student left my room, I turned to him, bitterly angry, and said, “Everything you just did in the last 75 minutes was bullshit.” 

Yeah, I swore at a kid. I then proceeded to yell at him, guilt him, and let him know how disappointed I was for 5-10 minutes before letting him leave. He sat on a chair near my desk, throughout all of this, quietly staring at his feet.

Now, some people might say he needed some tough love. (They are probably not teachers.) I say that could have been taken down at least five notches and the time cut in half. What my student really needed to hear was this: I’m disappointed with how you acted, especially after we just set up this great goal to work towards, and we’re going to continue working towards that goal even though I’m disappointed because I believe in you. I doubt that was the message sent. When I think about that interaction, a painful truth floats to the surface every time. I was bested by a twelve-year-old. I let my emotions run wild because a preteen, who was dealing with extreme trauma and dangerous levels of stress, behaved poorly in my class. I – I, personally, – felt hurt that he didn’t behave well after I vouched for him. Despite the fact that he was hurting deeply and would not be magically healed from one 30-minute conversation with an assistant principal, counselor, and teacher.

I should have been the better person. It’s not the only time I should have been the better person, but it is definitely the most painful memory like that. Learning to be even a decent teacher means learning from moments like that. It means that you need to learn to not take anything personally, to be patient and compassionate before angry and insulted. It is a terribly difficult skill to learn, and it is one you are expected to have immediately. But if you do learn that skill – one that you practice nearly every day in this profession – I think you just might become that better person.

Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

I just finished my first day of professional development for the year, and woah. I didn’t realize exactly how into “summer mode” I had burrowed myself into. I am not ready to leave summer mode. Helpful as the professional development was, it did send tiny sirens of panic into my head. Questions about classroom management, discipline, teaching effectively, and all that other good stuff left tiny stressful voices sprinting across my brain within the first few hours of the workshop. So this post is about stress, and dealing with stress.

This isn’t just for teaching, but it’s especially important, I think, for teachers. So much of the profession demands your attention and energy that it’s easy to forget that you need to keep a little energy and attention on yourself. I’m sure that this will become easier as I continue to teach, but for a new teacher, I need regular check-ins with myself to make sure I’m taking care of myself and not just taking care of my job. Consider it a mental garden: sometimes, you just gotta go in and pull some weeds. These are my favorite weed-pulling or weed-prevention strategies for that mental garden.

1. Learn when to say no and when to say yes in your personal life. I had friends who, during their first year teaching, all but disappeared from my life. They were and are wonderful friends, but one side effect of teaching was that it felt so draining to them that they almost forgot how to socialize. If you say no too often in your personal life, whether it’s seeing friends or talking to family or strengthening other relationships, you’re going to eventually feel isolated and even more stressed. Doing the opposite, though, can be just as damaging: I tried to overdo my social life when I began teaching. I had this stubborn mindset that I could have everything I had before I began teaching (why not try to socialize every day, train for a marathon, start three or four new hobbies, all while starting a new career? This is actually not an exaggeration for me). I had to learn when to say no to friends during the week. Other people I know had to learn when to say yes. This is going to be a learning process: if you’re feeling absolutely drained that day, tell your friends no. If you’re feeling that way for a month, maybe grit your teeth and go to yoga. You may feel better. Pay attention to your patterns of behavior and reflect on whether you’re overdoing the yes’s or the no’s.

2. Start paying attention to your body and what it needs. Nobody wants to hear “eat healthy and exercise,” but dammit, eat healthy and exercise. There’s no need to overdo it – balance it everything, of course – and sometimes you’re going to need that bag of chips and a good, long evening with your butt on the couch watching your favorite movie. But if you exercise regularly, and you avoid the junk food, you will feel better. You will handle the stress better. Exercise and eating healthy won’t be the one-size fits all, only way possible of dealing with stress, but it will help. (My personal favorites for relaxing after work: rock climbing/bouldering, yoga, running, hiking, biking.)

3. Meditate. When I was so stressed last year that I could barely see from November to December, I was trying everything I could find to help lower my stress level. I stumbled upon meditation. There’s a lot of “woo-woo” out there about meditation, and I’m sure I’ll write a separate post specifically on meditating at some point, but suffice it to say (for now) that there is a surprising amount of legitimate research out there to support the theory that meditation is really good for you. I now meditate for about 5 minutes in the morning every day, and I’ve personally noticed a difference. For stressed-out first year teachers, I’d suggest meditating right after getting home from work; I did that last year and it helped me separate work and home mentally and more quickly get out of “teacher mind.”

4. Use a notebook to record your days and reflect on everything. During my first year of teaching, I had a problem that I called the hamster wheel problem: I’d get on this hamster wheel of thought patterns and just go, go, go, around the wheel. I’d continue this thought pattern, whatever it was – I’m not sure if teaching is for me, I’m worried about this student, I’m so stressed out, etc. – and I would feel worse as I stayed on the mental wheel. When I began writing regularly about a problem, or about teaching in general, I found it easier to stay off the hamster wheel. I don’t have a strict rule about writing, just a few times a week, sometimes specifically choosing a topic to write about and sometimes writing with no plan in mind. It helps to write it all down (bonus: you’ll want to look back and remember all that crazy stuff that happened your first year and laugh later).

5. Get outside. This will definitely be something I write about in the future (hello, modern hippie here), but I think people drastically underestimate the effect that nature has on their bodies. We like pretending that we are above and beyond the outdoors; we’ve evolved past it; nature is just for those weirdo hikers and snowboarders and other fitness hippies (I am in all categories and hope you are, too). We aren’t above and beyond it. Our bodies recognize the deficiency and it does affect us. Please note that I am not saying you need to climb a mountain every other day to relax. Nope. Just walk around your neighborhood if that’s all you’ve got or all you want. Get home, walk around for fifteen minutes and stare at the trees (my case: cactus), stare at the sky, feel the sun and the breeze on you. I promise, I promise, you will feel less stressed.

Remember that no one solution is perfect forever. Vary how you process and deal with the stress of teaching, and know that tomorrow is a new day. Know that, however you’re dealing with the stress (in a healthy way!), you’re taking care of yourself and that is critical for not just this job, but for life.

The Report

Year: 1

My first mandatory report came sometime in early October. As my students for my fifth period class walked into class to take their seats, one of my students, Elizabeth, walked by looking as if she were crying. When I settled everyone down and ensured they were quietly working, I took Elizabeth off to the side and asked her what was wrong.

It’s always a bit of a coin toss when you ask a middle school student what’s wrong: either something is really wrong, or something on the “middle school” level of pain (breakup, friend troubles, etc.) is happening. When I pulled Elizabeth aside, I realized it was serious.

“I’m just worried about Bella,” she said, another girl in her class. I glanced over at Bella, who was writing down her homework for the day. “She told me something bad before we came into class.”

I was on high alert. I’d heard enough stories, had enough conversations with students and colleagues, to race ahead to the worst possible conclusions. I tried to speak calmly while I explained to Elizabeth that I could only help Bella if she told me what Bella told her; a delicate balance, to try and persuade a young student to betray her friend’s loyalty to a teacher. Elizabeth told me that Bella had begun cutting herself again, explaining that it hadn’t happened for some time but that she had restarted the practice last night.

I thanked Elizabeth for her honesty and sent her back to her desk, silently frantic about how to proceed next. I couldn’t let Bella leave my classroom and go home, on the chance that she hurt herself again, but I couldn’t bank on the possibility that a principal would be in the front office when the bell rang.

This class was my largest, worst-behaved class, always a bit rowdier because it was in the afternoons when students were ready to go home. I went to the librarian and asked her quietly if she could cover my class while I took a student to the front office, and she agreed. After the class began working on the assignment, I called Bella over to me, thanked the librarian again, and took Bella to the front office. We went to the front desk and were taken into my principal’s office to wait for him.

It was a painful few seconds of silence. Bella clearly knew why we were here, after having seen me talk to Elizabeth and then quickly taken her to the front office. She didn’t speak, looking at the desk in front of her. I didn’t know how to communicate to her how concerned I was; I didn’t know if it was professionally appropriate to tell her that, while in school, I had friends who had suffered with depression and self-harm. While we waited for the principal to arrive, I spoke to her quietly, trying to convey how much I cared about her and that she was not in trouble. 

My principal began asking questions as soon as he arrived. He made it clear that Bella wasn’t in trouble, like I had, and told her that we just wanted to make sure she was safe. Through that conversation, we learned that her mother was currently detained in a jail a few towns away from us. Her mother and stepfather had been driving, and were pulled over by the police; although her mom wasn’t driving, she was asked for identification and, having none, the officer eventually learned that she was an illegal immigrant. She was being held in the jail to learn whether she was going to be deported. Bella, in the meantime, was living with her stepfather. She and her stepfather, at that time, had only known each other for a few months.

I remember keeping Bella in class after the bell rang, sometime in late spring, to talk to her about focusing on schoolwork while in class. At the end of the conversation, I asked how her mother was doing, and she told me that her mother hadn’t yet been deported but was still in jail. In 7th grade, when kids should be worried about fitting in and figuring out who they are, Bella spent the school year worried that her mother was going to be deported and taken away from her.

How do you respond to a twelve-year-old who tells you she hasn’t seen her mom in over seven months because she may be deported?

This may not be the average 7th grade experience, but it is not an entirely unique one. Add other traumatic experiences – death of a family member, abuse, neglect – and the list of students goes up substantially. I never felt prepared for situations like these during my first year. Throughout the year, I became better at handling the situations in the moment and better at processing them outside of work, but I never became better at conveying to my friends and family what it was like to deal with that (or worry about that) regularly in my work.

Dear First Year Teacher,

Welcome to teaching.

This year is going to be different from any year you’ve had before this. Whether you’re fresh out of college or switching careers, I can basically promise that this is going to feel like something entirely separate from almost every other major life experience. Teaching is just different.

You’re going to be challenged, and that’s okay. Sometimes that challenge will overwhelm you and threaten to push you down into deeply stressful places. For better or worse, that’s normal. I promise you, though, you will make it through those periods. Teaching is a career that demands an immense amount of energy, dedication, and focus: few other jobs are quite as intense, and it can be a stressful transition into a job like this. You’ll be okay.

There will be long, difficult days and sometimes those days will turn into long, difficult weeks.  You will be tired. A lot. There will be chunks of the school year that seem impossible to break through (i.e., all of November), but you will break through eventually. This is not a normal profession; it is stressful and draining, taking a lot more of your “daily human interaction quota” than you expect. Please remember that. Remember that this is a difficult, stressful, and at times draining career, because if you forget, you may be tempted to think it is just you. It is not just you. Every teacher has felt what you will feel this year. Every teacher has doubted his or her ability to teach and to enjoy teaching. They have made it through their first year, and so will you.

Remember to take care of yourself. Don’t let it be an option. As you go through the year, pay attention to your inner self and know that different days will need different types of self-care. Some days, you should probably go on a run and work out the stress and irritation of a bad day. Some days, you should probably go home, pour a glass of wine, and watch your favorite movie with some friends. Some days, it will feel best to just cry on the phone to your mom or dad. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.) Please know that one of these types of decompression is not better or worse than another type; it just may be what you need that day.

Enjoy the good moments. Teaching is not like a normal job: the highs are really high, and the lows are really low. I hope you don’t have too many low moments, but you will learn from them. It is easy, too easy, to focus on the difficult parts of this job and not spend enough time feeling good or proud about the parts of the job that made you want to be a teacher. Focus on the good parts, and you will be better for it.

Think about teaching, but don’t live in teaching. Think about what you did well, and what you need to work on; doing that will improve your skills as a teacher and it is important to strive for improvement. But when you go home, do everything you can to be home. Relax. When you leave that school campus, however you do it, you should be mentally and emotionally focused on your home life. This is going to be hard to do: after all, you care about your students and your job, so you want to do the best you can. But if you are living in the “teacher mind,” which is to say, you’re thinking about teaching every moment of the day, you’ll burn out. Leave some time for you to still be you.

This year, you will experience more than you expect. Don’t beat yourself up too much for mistakes you may make, and remember that you will get better with each day if you try. As you go through the year, remember to enjoy it as much as you can, even if you’re stressed. I’ll be rooting for you.

Good luck.