How to Keep Teaching When Your Students Keep Dying

In her memoir, “Men We Reaped”, Jesamyn Ward discusses the young men she’s lost in her life — five in the span of four years. After naming the young men and the months in which they died, she said, “That’s a brutal list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time…But my ghosts were once people, and I cannot forget that.” I, too, have a brutal list. In my thirteen years of teaching, I’ve lost more students than I can count on two hands.

It has not been possible for me to continue to teach unchanged by these losses and the structural reality that ensures they will continue. I’ve had to develop a guide for myself to teaching and loving children knowing you may lose them and grappling with the white savior beliefs and practices that made me believe I could save them.

This experience has been brutal, but I am a better person and a better teacher for shifting my priorities to honor the people my ghosts — and former students — once were, and the meaningful relationships we built while they were alive.

What follows are the steps I take to manage and process grief when I’ve lost another student and the ways I have changed my mindset to focus on what will always matter, even as my students keep dying.

Step 1: Feel the Loss

The shock that comes when you lose a student you love swallows you almost immediately, and doing anything but feeling it is not an option. You may find yourself numb in a way that could be familiar or frightening. You may wonder what is wrong with you and why you aren’t impacted more or less.

You are doing it right, so long as you don’t force it or run from it. Timelines aren’t useful to you now. Grief doesn’t abide by time.

If you can bear it, if there is an opportunity, show up. Find, join or create a space and time dedicated to this loss. Bear witness not just to your lost one, but to the pain of those who loved them with you. Be present, if you can. Be reminded that it was a miracle of time and chance and even more, that you were able to love each other in the first place.

If this is not your first loss, feel it all the same. Fight the numbness that creeps in when you’ve been exposed to too much harm, violence and injustice. Honor each lost student as the individual they are, not a number or a statistic.

Step 2: Create a Ritual

In “Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community”, authors Malidoma Patrice Somé detail the ways that ritual is essential to the wellness of the human spirit and how it “is not compatible with the rapid rhythm that industrialization has injected into life.”

I find that my grief is decidedly not compatible with said rhythm, and ritual creates a space where this rhythm is neither expected nor required. Frankly, ritual keeps me from losing my mind in the face of not only those students I’ve lost in the present but those I may lose in the future, and the terrible fact that there will inevitably be more to come. Counter to what I sometimes fear, it is letting the loss in and sitting with it that keeps me from being overcome by it.

Find the ritual that works for you. In New Orleans, we honor our dead with candlelight vigils and second lines, repasts and t-shirts bearing their images with newly added wings. These communal celebrations do something meaningful for me, but I have a more private ritual I use when I am ready.

My ritual is as follows: I light a seven-day candle and sit before it to write a commitment to carry forward what I learned from the person I’ve lost. For as long as the candle burns, I sit with it each night, reading the commitment aloud again, affixing it, I hope, to something deeper than memory.

Step 3: Realize All The (White) Savior Rhetoric You’ve Been Fed is a Lie

It is painful to realize that most of what you’d hoped was true about teaching, or about America, is a myth. I, like many other white teachers, was recruited under the guise that by simply showing up and teaching well, we could change the public education system in America, as though the problem was a lack of good teachers and not a system built upon segregation and the disparity of resources and opportunities.

I once had a former student who was one of the only kids I’ve taught who straight-up didn’t like me when we first met. He was a straightforward and determined young man whose smile lit up the room when he decided to show it. During his senior year, he was stuck with me twice a day, the second of which was a class designed to prepare him for a state test he needed to pass in order to graduate. Our relationship was a tenuous one, built slowly around this shared goal. On his graduation day in 2014, he found me after the ceremony and hugged me, thanking me for helping him get there. It was a beautiful moment in our relationship. Unfortunately, he died on Thanksgiving day two years later.

In New Orleans, there is a 25.8-year difference in the life expectancies between white neighborhoods which are often rich in access and resources, and Black neighborhoods where there is a lack of resources and opportunities. None of our systems — whether criminal, legal, medical or educational — are serving Black children.

When white teachers are recruited into school systems, like New Orleans’ segregated schools that serve predominantly Black students and children of color, it is often to appeal to white arrogance. To believe that the failures of our education system can be fixed by simply recruiting better teachers — often a dog whistle for white teachers — is a convenient way to avoid addressing the context in which our students are educated.

To say that if we teach well enough, we can save our children from the neglect, violence and inequalities of our city is a lie that at best appeals to our optimism and at worst to our egos. It simply isn’t true. We cannot teach well enough to save all our children from an unwell society. Our teaching has to be about more than this.

Step 4: Make Meaning

As my students kept dying and I realized that I could not save everyone, I had to figure out what actually mattered in my classroom. This shifted my priorities indelibly. These days, I make three commitments to my students and their families:

  1. Treat every student with care and dignity.
  2. Challenge every student.
  3. Teach something relevant to every student’s current life.

Each day at school, my children and I have precious time to spend together learning in community. I have not given up on preparing my students for future opportunities in college or careers, but I have used these commitments to balance these aspirations with a focus on what is meaningful today, in the here and now, whether or not we will see each other again tomorrow.

My students will continue to walk an incredible variety of paths and experience many beautiful aspects of life after they leave my class — but some will continue to die. No matter what happens to my students, the relationships we are able to have when I prioritize these commitments cannot be taken away from us. The experiences we have in my classroom and the community we build are about more than preparing for a certain kind of life. They are meaningful, in and of themselves.

Death Ends Life, Not a Relationship

This past summer, my school community a young woman who was beloved by everyone she met. A rising senior, she had just become a mother — and a fantastic one at that. Certainly, many of us had lost young people in our lives before; in fact, more than half of New Orleans’s young people have lost someone to homicide, but to lose her felt especially unfair.

At a candlelight vigil we held in her honor, I passed around a basket of tea lights and urged my students to make time to honor her passing in a way that felt appropriate for them. I reminded them that grief takes shape in many different ways and shared my ritual.

In our first major project of the year, my students created quilt squares depicting the face of someone they wanted to pay tribute to and artist statements detailing the impact these people had on their lives. Stitched next to Halle Bailey as Ariel, Kobe Bryant, self-portraits and Princess Tiana were several quilt squares honoring the student we lost, a person whose impact we will not forget, with whom our relationship has not ended.

When I center my teaching on challenging my students each day instead of on a final outcome of “saving” my students, on building meaningful community in the day-to-day instead of on relentlessly pursuing future outcomes, I am honoring the value that our lives and learning have without needing a successful future outcome to validate them. Every day that I get to challenge my students and be in relationship with them is a gift, and nothing, not even death, can take that away.

In remembrance of all my students who have been victims of violence in New Orleans and all the children we have lost from the deep inequality of our American education system.

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