Coping with grief at the schoolhouse

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Leslie Baldacci is an associate program consultant for the New Teacher Center.

Leslie Baldacci is an associate program consultant for the New Teacher Center.

Thank you for your issue of Catalyst In Depth on trauma due to exposure to violence and the ripples of impact it creates. For every child whose life is cut short in a shooting incident, the collateral damage extends to witnesses, family members, friends, neighbors, teachers, principals and school personnel, from the lunchroom to the boiler room.

When the horrific news of a child being killed hits the headlines, the heartbreaking work begins at school: informing staff, preparing to deliver the news to students and anticipating the emotional fallout, reaching out to the family, deciding when and how to memorialize the victim. We go into this work to serve our students in every possible way. But even the most capable school leaders and teachers cannot prepare for an event so harsh, so devastating, so raw. It takes a terrible toll, and the loss continues to reverberate at many levels–in the community, in the classroom, in our hearts and minds.

The same can be said of the damage at the other end: The shooters are often our students or former students, and they send their own ripples of woe from families to society at large. In many classrooms in our city, most if not all students know first-hand either someone who was injured or killed by gun violence, or someone who is doing time in prison for it.

As Catalyst noted, our response to this crisis is scattershot. Two years ago, as part of my own professional development  with the Chicago New Teacher Center, I created a “grief kit” as a support for our beginning teachers who experience the loss of a student or a student’s family member to an act of violence, accident, house fire or other sudden tragedy. These are events that challenge the ablest, most experienced educators. NTC serves first- and second-year teachers, who, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, are nearly twice as likely as veterans to teach in schools serving the most African-American and Hispanic students, populations disproportionately affected by violence.

Here are some of the questions I faced as a mentor to these new teachers:

  • “How do I tell the kids?”

  • “What if I cry?”

  •  “What do I say to the family?”

  •  “How can I help my students feel safe at school?”

  •  “What behaviors should I be alert for?”

  •  “What could our class do to comfort the family? Each other? Memorialize their classmate?”

How teachers handle the fallout of violence responsibly and empathetically in their classrooms–from acknowledging the loss to creating a safe environment where kids can not only learn, but find comfort and begin to heal–is not something that is taught in pre-service programs. We learn from experience to anticipate that a student who survived a shooting or who saw a family member killed could be at school the next morning. Grief counselors and crisis teams do an amazing job in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event. School communities deal with both the short- and long-term impact.

The challenges teachers face in managing classrooms in which many students have been traumatized, some repeatedly, are significant. As Sarah Karp reported, “traumatized children often lose the ability to concentrate, become withdrawn or act out.” How can teachers meet the learning needs of all students when emotional needs are so great? Our greatest challenge may be: What can we teach to keep it from happening? How can we lastingly influence the children coming through our classroom doors to minimize the chance of them becoming either victim or perpetrator in their lifetimes?

The Illinois Social-Emotional Learning Standards provide a framework for teaching empathy and resilience. Standard 1 is about learning to manage one’s own emotions and control impulses. Standard 2D identifies the need for students to “Demonstrate an ability to prevent, manage and resolve interpersonal conflicts in constructive ways.”  Standard 3A speaks to ethical reasoning, and 3C to the personal responsibility to “contribute to the well-being of one’s school and community.”

These standards represent skills that might prevent words from escalating into gunshots, or even break the “no snitch” cycle. For many of our students, they are as important as academics, not only for survival, but success in life.

Your issue clearly demonstrated the need for schools to teach them, and for more counselors and mental health services in our schools. Our district is wise to recognize the need, and pragmatic to connect childhood trauma and academic achievement.

Leslie Baldacci is an associate program consultant for the New Teacher Center, a national not-for-profit that focuses on improving student learning by accelerating the effectiveness of new teachers and principals, by providing high-quality coaching and professional development, strengthening school leadership and working to enhance teaching conditions. She is the author of “Inside Mrs. B’s Classroom: Courage, Hope and Learning on Chicago’s South Side.”