It is impossible not to give a piece of your heart to each student who comes into your classroom. If you are an educator, you know this truth. When tragedy strikes, you feel it in your chest.
I was given nothing, except for the news that my student was gone and a reminder to talk to someone if I needed it. Here I was, a young teacher with little experience dealing with trauma, much less helping others through it. Yet, I was expected to go back to my classroom and find a way through this tragedy for the students and myself.
It was a terrible, gnawing feeling that I was standing alone. Teachers are constantly expected to give everything they have for their students, but when they need support, they are often left to figure it out on their own.
Following the news, my lesson plans for the day suddenly seemed ridiculous. I knew I needed to shift what I was doing, but I didn’t know where to begin. I hadn’t faced a situation like this as a teacher. At this point, the bell was ringing, students started coming in, and I had to do something. I relied on my own experience with an unexpected loss to find something that felt meaningful for them to do.
A Space to Reflect
My students’ journals hadn’t been touched since the beginning of the school year, so much so that the journal at the top of the stack started to collect dust. I was told that I could not talk about what had happened, though many of my students already knew by the time they got to school that day. So, I dried my tears for the moment, and when the first class came in, I handed each student their journal and asked them to write a letter to someone and tell them what was heavy on their heart. I promised them I would read every single entry they wrote.
My students wrote in their journals every day for the week to follow. I spent hours reading their entries and responding to them so they could write in them again the next day. Seeing them be so vulnerable and honest on the page was humbling. I picked up their heartache, grief, and confusion and carried it with me the best I could—all while trying to carry my own. They shared with me not only their sadness over the loss of their classmate and friend but their joys, their hurt, things that they held dear, and things they’d rather let go of. As a result, I felt new connections begin to form between me and students I hadn’t connected with before and felt existing bonds strengthen. Getting to know them through their writing was a powerful experience that softened me and allowed me to become a more empathetic teacher.
I felt them slowly starting to heal. Of course, many were still sad, angry, and confused, but they were laughing again, and the classroom didn’t feel so dark anymore. As an educator, those were the joyful moments for me. Unfortunately, these moments were short-lived for me.
I learned a lot from the experience of having to quickly decide and execute a new plan. You could say that the entire experience made me a better teacher. A stronger teacher. A more resilient educator. But at what cost?
Something was eating away at me inside. I was still so full of hurt and pain and raw, unbridled grief that—in the process of focusing only on my students—I’d left my emotions untended. I was angry. I was so, so angry. I felt abandoned by my school. I was navigating trauma and burnout simultaneously, and my own health was suffering because of it.
In those weeks after what happened, I did what teachers have been expected to do time and time again. Carve a way through. Move heaven and hell if you have to. Get down in the mud and trudge through the darkness. Don’t falter. Don’t stop. Don’t show weakness. Keep going until you can’t keep going anymore because if you don’t, then you are a terrible teacher, and you simply don’t care enough about your students. This is the poison of toxic resilience.
Toxic resilience can manifest itself in different ways. As stated in this article from the Harvard Business Review, “In the face of seemingly hopeless circumstances, some people resemble a superhero cartoon character that runs through a brick wall: unemotional, fearless, and hyper-phlegmatic.”
The idea of “resilience” has become highly popularized in education for both students and teachers. While I believe that there is value in encouraging strength, passing around the word “resilience” has become a scapegoat for those who do not wish to address the actual underlying issues that created the need for grit and toughness in the first place.
An Obligation to Change
Marching on is not the solution, even though leadership wishes it was. I get it. It is easier to ask someone to keep going than to take a step back, reevaluate, and recreate a system to provide support.
Teaching is always hard, but it doesn’t have to be this hard. Teaching is a heart-centered profession, so to some extent, heartbreak comes with the job, but the means of support for teachers are not working. At this point, we are past discussing whether to change. Now is the time to rebuild our structures of support.
The work culture of teaching is rooted in the unabashed expectation of toxic resilience, and the broken system that we operate on is utterly dependent on it. Anything less than that, and you are labeled as lazy, bitter, and selfish. This puts educators at extreme risk of unnecessary stress, burnout, and in some cases, leaving the profession altogether.
I am not made of steel. I am human, and I deserve to be treated as such.
My heart has not quite mended from the grief of losing a student. In all honesty, I’m not sure if I will ever be the same person I was before. But I do believe the system of support for teachers can be rebuilt. It will take honest discussion, dedicated time led by administration, and a vision driven by teachers.
But for now, to the teachers who have been there and will be there, standing in an empty classroom wondering what to do—you do not stand alone.