“The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.“
W.H. Auden. Funeral Blues.
I invite the world into my classroom. Student learning should be as relevant to real life as possible, so I use technology, guest speakers, field trips and any other tactic possible to facilitate connections between what happens in the classroom and ‘the real world’.
Making a separation between the world outside the school and what happens inside is an artificial construct. Students arrive in our classrooms with all kinds of baggage (poverty, family dynamics, nutrition, media influences, etc.) that affect their learning. Pretending that our classrooms aren’t part of ‘the real world’ doesn’t help students in their learning or make schools better.
But there are moments when I wish all of this wasn’t true, when I wish our schools were the goldfish bowls we sometimes pretend they are, and the outside world could be kept at arm’s length. That students could find a safe and protective space inside those walls and behind those doors.
Tragedies big and small affect students and classrooms and schools all the time. As a teacher part of my role is to try to help students understand, process and come to some peace with them. Increasing transparency in our world means that younger and younger students become aware of the unpleasantness and pain that living in the world can sometimes mean. It’s hard to make school seem important if students are afraid for their safety.
Last year the ten and eleven year olds in my classroom had many questions about things like The Boston Bombings. I tried to help them understand these difficult issues and make some sense of them by letting them ask questions. Before that it was Newton and poverty and homelessness and disease and on and on. There’s no shortage of ‘big scary issues’ and I could discuss them in the abstract and with personal detachment. I could put aside my own fear and feelings about them and be a sounding board for my students. This is much harder to do when the tragedies affecting students also affect me personally.
I returned from vacation last week to find out that one of my students had died. A wonderful, funny, bright, charming, creative, silly eleven year old girl fell out of a window and died. For the second time in my teaching career I’m the last teacher a student will ever have.
It’s hard to explain how heavily this weighs on me. I try to remember what my last words to her were. Did I make sure she knew how wonderful I thought she was? Did I do all I could to make her last year in school all it could be? Did I spend our time doing things that really mattered?
I also feel a sense of responsibility. As a teacher it’s part of that relationship with a student that we take that on. When students go on and achieve success we feel a sense of shared pride in their accomplishments, that in a way we had a hand in it. In the same way I wonder if I did enough to prevent this tragedy. I know this is irrational but the questions niggle away at the edge of my consciousness.
Some of her classmates came to the visitation for her a couple of days ago. I was repeatedly being pulled out of my own grief and towards trying to help them make sense of what had happened. The awful part about it was that, of course, I had no answers for them, no reassurances. I wanted to reach out them, to connect with them, but I had nothing to say. They already knew the truth.
When we return to school after labour day those students, and many others, will need support and help in dealing with what’s happened. I know that, as their teacher, I’m best placed to give them that support. But I really don’t know where that’s going to come from. How can I help them to understand something that I don’t understand? How can I tell them it’s going to be ok, when I’m not sure it will?
For now, my hope is that simply being there will be enough. That letting them know it will take time, and that if they need support I’ll be there. I plan to be as honest as I can, and admit when there are things I don’t have answers to. I know that both they and I will have other support. I plan on using it, and I hope they will too.
I’ll also keep those questions in the front of my mind as I’m teaching. Do my students know how wonderful I think they are? Am I doing all I can to make this a great experience for them? Am I spending my time doing the things that really matter?