From Grief to a Teacher’s Own Teachable Moment

The pain of loss taught a veteran teacher a powerful lesson about relationships.

It was 3 p.m. in my empty classroom. As I reflected on my day and what had transpired, I began to cry. Sob, actually. That day in September had been one of the worst of my teaching career, and in 23 years of teaching, I have been fortunate not to have many such days. 

I was tired—mentally, emotionally and physically. As a result, I was short on patience. Grief does that to a person. My Dear Mom, my first and my best friend,  died in May, and the grief I experienced returning to school without her was painful in ways I cannot describe. Combined with a group of students presenting some classroom management challenges, it led me to lose my patience with them that day.

Once I had gotten myself together, alone in my classroom at the end of the day, I called my Dear Dad. I explained what had happened. “Ah…they’ll be fine,” he said. We shared some warm memories of my mother, which made both of us laugh. With my spirits lifted and my mind clearer, I reflected on my students, how I had lost my cool, and what I had to do at the next class: I had to apologize. 

As I reflected on the apology I would give to my students, I also reflected on the role that empathy had played that day. Specifically, I had displayed a lack of empathy for my students. Yet, I had to display empathy for myself in order to acknowledge my mistake, embrace my own humanity and repair my relationship with them. In other words, to give empathy to my students, I first had to give empathy to myself.

Apologizing to students has never been an easy move for me. On the other hand, it has been one of the aspects of my teaching to which I have devoted much effort during the last 13 years of my teaching practice, and from which I have reaped improved relationships with my students. 

On that next day, I apologized to my students. I explained to them I was not feeling well, which was true, and I told them I was sorry for losing my patience with them. I also explained to them that their learning and progress are my main goals, and that I needed certain behaviors from them to accomplish this goal. 

Then, in an unplanned, unscripted and very risky move, I asked my students to say what they needed from me to have the class they needed and wanted. Here is what they said:

  • Be stricter. (That actually surprised me; I run a pretty structured class.)
  • Enforce consequences for students who won’t behave.
  • Use fewer activities from the textbook.    
  • Include more group activities.
  • Create time for projects.

All of the suggestions the students offered were certainly doable, and I got to work putting them into effect. 

In addition to the conversation I had with my students, I reached out to my department chair. We talked for about 30 minutes, and she commended me for apologizing to the students before she offered insights about the class that I had not considered. She made suggestions that I was able to put into practice immediately. Although these changes have not magically fixed every issue in my classroom, the situation with my class is much improved. 

So what did grief and loss teach me? They taught me the importance of reaching out to others and trusting my instincts. Grief and loss also taught me to forgive myself and to have compassion and empathy for myself, which we teachers tend not to do. When I shared the situation of my class with a close friend and colleague, she told me: “We teachers have a very challenging job. When we begin with love, compassion and empathy for ourselves, we are more likely to have the same for our students.” I can think of few more powerful lessons. 

Webb teaches Spanish to middle and high school students at Watkinson School in Hartford, Connecticut.

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    Marcy, your strength, and your ability to put into such eloquent terms what so many of us go through when we lose someone dear to us, make me admire you that much more. Excellent article. Very insightful.