Speaking From the Inside

Managing Grief in the Classroom

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I reach out by sharing my own life. It feels to me like the most authentic way to respond to someone else’s grief.

There is a strong tradition in education research that emphasizes the value of studying best practices. My own recent experience highlights the way that writing about what bedevils us most can also deepen and enrich our teaching.

One year ago, on the second anniversary of my partner’s sudden death from coronary disease, I wrote an essay that described my reluctance to reveal this difficult loss to my teacher education students. Usually outspoken about breaking down the barriers between personal and professional life, for two years I remained uncharacteristically silent about Bob’s passing.

Today I am back at the computer. I still haven’t found the answers to all of my original questions. I do know, however, that writing about my pedagogical muddle enabled me to help my students imagine a broader range of responses to loss than they previously had. When the much-vaunted “teachable moment” arrived, I was better prepared to use my own experience in the interest of their learning.

I offer a course on contemporary childhood. Midway through the term, I invited Lenore Furman, a Newark, N.J., kindergarten teacher, to talk about how she addressed difficult social issues in her classroom. Before the group meeting each morning, children in her class have a chance to dictate an event that has occurred in their lives outside of school. Lenore brought a sample of the “News of the Day” book, in which she collects these stories, along with a videotape of an especially memorable morning.

Keisha’s mom was eight months pregnant, and everyone was waiting excitedly, if somewhat impatiently, for the birth of Keisha’s first sibling. After missing several days of school, Keisha came in one morning and sat down quietly next to Lenore. Invited to add something to the News of the Day book, Keisha carefully told this story: “My mom had went to the hospital and she had her baby and it died. It was born too early. My mommy was crying.”

When the group of kindergartners gathered on the rug, Lenore asked each child who had contributed that morning if she could read his or her News of the Day out loud. Keisha sat next to Lenore again and was eager to have her news read. When asked if there was anything she wanted to add, Keisha said no. Lenore then reviewed the basics of pregnancy and childbirth that had been part of the ongoing curriculum. She reassured the children that only in rare circumstances did babies die. The class listened quietly and closely to everything Lenore said.

My own students had many questions. How did Lenore manage, with 27 children in her class? How did she respond to Keisha when she first heard her story? What kind of administrative support did she have for these difficult conversations?

I wanted my students, all teachers, to understand the many ways that people respond to loss, regardless of age.

After Lenore left, one of my students, Suzanne, said she had been struck, watching the video, by the silence of the other children in the kindergarten classroom when Keisha’s news was read. As Suzanne spoke and others responded, I thought back to my experience two years earlier, just after the loss of my partner. Bob and I had been together for 30 years, and his death was completely unexpected. Upon returning to work, I wanted people to know, but it was too soon for conversations of any sort. So with the help of a close friend, I crafted a brief response to acknowledge the sympathy expressed by colleagues, and to make clear that I would not engage in any talk about the topic.

—Bob Dahm

Feeling uneasy, yet determined, I told the class my story and how it influenced my reading of Keisha’s behavior. In retrospect, I see that I wanted my students, all teachers, to understand the many ways that people respond to loss, regardless of age. We could only guess how Keisha and her classmates felt. Lenore had described the situation in the only way possible, from the outside. But that night in our class, I wanted my students to hear someone speaking from the inside. And, as they say, you could have heard a pin drop.

I was keenly aware that discussing Bob’s death might provoke a small crisis of our own. I saw an opportunity, however, to use my own life to help my students experience what it is like when death inevitably makes its appearance in a classroom. And with respect to basic human emotions like separation and loss, I think children and adults have more in common than traditional theories of development suggest.

Then Dan broke the silence that had descended upon us. He recounted the time that Steven, one of his 1st graders, told his class group about the death of his grandmother. Dan noted that other students responded by offering their own stories of loss, but did not speak directly to Steven. Dan felt disappointed by this. He described the children as egocentric. I, on the other hand, saw the long shadow still cast by Piaget in Dan’s words, a shadow that always underestimates children’s cognitive and emotional lives. For me, despite the absence of direct expressions of sympathy, the children’s counterstories were best interpreted as attempts to identify and empathize with Steven.

Another long pause in our conversation. I wanted my students to think about the different ways people show grief and respond to others. So, taking what felt like a further risk, I spoke about the many losses endured by other faculty members in recent years. My instinct is to listen when someone wants to talk, and, now that I am ready, to answer with my own experience. I don’t ask questions that might be intrusive or try to offer easy wisdom. After all, I am unable to imagine what it is like for Jeannie to lose her husband; Katherine, her life partner; or Ken, his father. Ambushed as I still am by the most surprising emotions, I studiously avoid second-guessing a colleague’s mood. Rather, like Dan’s 1st grade students, I reach out by sharing my own life. It feels to me like the most authentic way to respond to someone else’s grief.

As our class conversation wound down, I wondered what my students understood about my own stories of managing loss. I remembered that earlier in the semester, Deanna said she would not read a children’s book to her 2nd graders in which a boy’s uncle dies of AIDS. She did not want to cry in front of the class. Like others, Deanna felt that children could not tolerate seeing adult expressions of vulnerability. Did my adult students need the same kind of protection? Had I gone too far? I asked the group if my stories had made me vulnerable in their eyes. Had I lost authority when talking about the death of my partner?

As a teacher-educator, I feel responsible for making my pedagogy visible and legible, no matter how discomforting that might be. I model what it means to take risks and to speak about experiences often considered “too personal” for the classroom. I want my students to test themselves within the safe confines of the graduate school space. When does such talk serve an educative function and when is it self-referential? I hope they are learning that groups—whether of kindergartners or graduate students—can not just tolerate stories of loss, but can grow stronger in the process.

I do know that on the night of Lenore’s visit, we left thoughtfully and quietly. Something had changed for all of us. Our class of 18 individuals was definitely becoming a group through the sharing of difficult emotions and, yes, through the sharing of many long silences.

After last summer, I was better prepared to seize the opportunities that presented themselves to discuss the challenges of managing grief and moving forward. This year, too, I will have a renewed commitment to using my own experiences to prompt student reflection, to building classrooms in which a full range of human experiences can be explored, and to writing about the fears and anxieties that so often lie just beneath the surface of our teaching lives.

Vol. 25, Issue 06, Pages 33-34

Published in Print: October 5, 2005, as Speaking From the Inside
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