Teaching Through Grief: What Happens When Educators Need Help
Originally published November 2023
By Britt Jungck
I was not prepared for Pam.
Teachers work with dozens of colleagues a day, from grade-level partners to school counsellors to social workers to speech therapists. We sometimes drift in and out of each other’s lives so often that we take for granted what we contribute to each other’s days.
In 2020, I had recently moved and left a district where my co-teacher and I had the kind of relationship that allowed us to read each other’s minds without saying a word. I didn’t think I would experience that kind of synergy again, but then I met Pam.
Pam was from California and now worked as an instructional strategist in Iowa. An expert in special education, Pam was respected by everyone. She had a fierce loyalty to her students and would stop at virtually nothing to ensure their educational needs were met.
Within seconds of meeting, we clicked. She became someone I counted on each day, someone I could laugh with about the absurdity of working in public education during a pandemic, someone I could sit in silence with and enjoy a cup of coffee, and someone I could cry to on really terrible days. Pam made me a better teacher.
Then one day last February, I was waiting in line at a coffee shop drive-thru on a crisp Saturday morning, scrolling through my Facebook, when I saw an odd story with Pam’s face and the words, “Heaven Gained Another Angel.” In disbelief, I looked up the number for the person who made the post and called her, skipping the hello, and shouting, “What does your post mean?!”
University training prepares educators for a lot of scenarios on the job: writing lesson plans, filling out evaluations, completing standardized testing administration, etc. But what it doesn’t prepare future teachers for is the inevitable grief that comes with the job.
Over the course of my teaching career, I have attended the funerals of my students’ parents, I have consoled students whose significant others were killed, and I have lost students to accidents, violence, and suicide. Yet, what I was the least prepared for was what to do when I lost a colleague.
Teaching is a job that leaves no time for eating lunch on most days, so finding space for grief is a true rarity. Often, when a tragedy strikes, teachers get one single day off unless they can provide evidence that they lost a “close relative.” Even then, teachers usually only get three to five days to take space to process their pain.
Three to five days away, then back to working a job where you are responsible for the emotional and physical well-being of anywhere from 20 to 200 students per day? That seems unbelievable.
To make matters worse, when death strikes a school, there are often so few substitute teachers available that services must be held on the weekends to avoid conflicts. Or, in many cases, teachers are forced to stay at school and miss the opportunity to attend the funerals of their friends and coworkers.
The education sector has also been impacted greatly since the COVID-19 pandemic, and many districts have been forced to eliminate personal days altogether, on top of now asking staff to cover classes on their breaks. In my most recent year in the classroom, I was asked to sub during my break period 29 times. I was teaching 119 students that year.
Some districts seem to understand the emotional toll teachers experience in this profession and provide access to free counselling services as part of their benefit plan. However, most of these services are provided off campus and during the hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., when teachers are typically in their school buildings.
I was fortunate to have access to this service in one of my districts, yet in order to make it to appointments, I had to ask my co-teacher to cover my lunch duty, speed on my way to the counselling office, then sit anxiously in guilt worrying about my classroom while I watched the clock during my session. It was not productive or helpful.
Each day, teachers struggle to carry the emotional burdens of their students so that they can achieve academic success. We listen to their worries about the future, we help them pull their first tooth, we sit beside them as they put their heads down and sob, and we coach them through anxiety, bullying, eating disorders, and depression. Yet, what happens when teachers need help?
When the worst happens, we are often asked to “power through” or to “put the kids’ needs first.” Many of us take on this task like a badge of honour, but after years of selflessness, the consequences start to become apparent.
In 2014, I had a particularly stressful year. I had two students lose their fathers very suddenly. I had a grandmother who was dealing with Alzheimer’s Disease. I had two kindergarteners of my own in school for the first time. And I had only ten sick days to use that whole school year. So, I did what many teachers do, and I “powered through.” I taught through headaches, heartburn, and tears until, one day, my ear drum ruptured. I had a raging ear infection, and I hadn’t even realized it because I’d been so trained to block out my pain in order to get through the day. This is what we don’t talk about enough.
Emotional pain is something we need to pay more attention to in our field. We need to make space for each other to feel things, especially grief. We need to allow our colleagues to stay home when they lose a beloved pet, a childhood friend, an uncle, but especially a student or colleague. We need time to process how this job fits into our new, post-COVID world that has been twisted by the pain of loss.
When I first saw the Facebook post about Pam, how I looked at teaching and friendships shifted in that moment. My realization of how serving alongside someone, often for ten or twelve hours a day, creates a unique bond was suddenly so real and so painful I couldn’t even drive my car forward.
Yet still, my first thought quickly became, How will I teach on Monday?
We need to change.
Britt Jungck is a licensed Master Educator for the State of Iowa. She gets her joy out of inspiring students to read and find themselves in books. She has been working with K–12 students all over Iowa since 2003, and is currently earning her PhD in Education with an emphasis in Social and Cultural Studies & Public Policy from Iowa State University.