The Grieving Teacher

Five days ago, my cousin Dan slipped in to a coma. Three days ago, on April 1, 2011, he passed away. All my family is in Canada. I’m in Korea.

“Did you get my text?” A Skype message from my sister.

I check the text, “Call me when you have time.”

I go to my email, “Jos, call us when you get the chance.” An email from my father.

I got these messages during my 10 minute break between classes.

What could I do? As a teacher I don’t have the privilege of hiding behind a desk, or fading away into a crowd of colleagues in order to deal with my emotions. No matter what my beliefs are about student-centered classrooms, I am fully aware of the central role I play as a teacher. I knew I would have to face my participants at some point. I couldn’t pretend.

After ten minutes I went back to class and told my participants about what I had just learned. I cried. Some of them teared up, possibly connecting to their own painful memories. I told them about the pain my cousin had to endure for the last seven years. For five years he was a prisoner in his own body (tetraplegia), and then in the last two years he became a prisoner in his own mind (Guillain Barre Syndrome).

(This is a photo montage I made of my cousin yesterday morning. I was inspired to do this when this was the first song that popped up on my iTunes shuffle. There are no coincidences.)

I decided that sharing my grief was the only way to go. I couldn’t imagine walking out of class. I knew that in that moment, if I chose to leave, I would have left them wondering and worrying. In the end, I probably would have come back in shambles anyway.

I faced the same bout of vulnerability when I learned of my SIT friend, Kimberly Awaos’s passing last summer (June 16, 2010). I tried to keep going with my grammar lesson, like I hadn’t received a Facebook message from her daughter telling us that the cancer had finally got to her, but in the end I unraveled in front of them all.

Kimberly's visit to Daegu - November 2007
Kimberly's visit to Daegu - November 2007
Kimberly's visit to Daegu - November 2007
Silly Teachers
Kimberly's visit to Daegu - November 2007
Enjoying Korean Delicacies

When my sister, also a teacher, asked me about my opinion of her own teacher tears, I told her I thought it was important for her 14-year-old students to see her emotional honesty. It teaches them that it’s okay to share our emotions. It also teaches them that they can be vulnerable too. It may also help them grieve a little.

All I know is that I felt better after I told them. I was even able to continue my lesson with more clarity. But the best thing I noticed, is that we all got a little closer.

I am happy to own my teacher tears.

What’s your protocol? Do you allow yourself to be vulnerable during hard times, or do you hide behind an emotional teacher wall? Do you see value in sharing your truth with students, or do you think it’s better to keep it from them?

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10 thoughts on “The Grieving Teacher

  1. Hello Josette,

    First of all. I am very sorry about the loss for you and your family. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and feelings here. I think it is a really important topic. As I read your post I was suddenly reminded of one of the hardest times in my teaching career. In 2004 in Japan by some quirk of the schedule my Friday afternoon class (usually 12 people) was just 2 first year girls. We had lots of fun joking around and having fun in English. Suddenly one Friday Kanako wasn’t there but I was already told that she had been hit by a truck and killed. I was instructed not to tell the other girl! So, I taught the whole lesson pretending not to know where Kanako was! This was, as you might imagine, extremely difficult. I feel like at this point in my career I might make a different choice, or somehow handle it differently. In any case, I hadn’t thought about Kanako or that situation very much in past few years.
    You ask, “Do you allow yourself to be vulnerable during hard times, or do you hide behind an emotional teacher wall?” I did in the time that I described and I didn’t like it for a variety of reasons. I certainly see value in sharing truth with students, especially because they are likely to know something is going on regardless. I think the human/personal aspects that other posters mentioned are incredibly important. I hope your week is going ok.
    Best,
    Mike

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    1. Thank you for the condolences Mike. I feel much better after writing and also after getting all this positive feedback on my post.

      I must say I am still in shock over your comment. I can’t imagine how hard that must have been for you. I’ve often wondered why employers encourage emotional barriers around such events. I mean do they really think they are protecting their students? It may have been easier for you student to hear about Kanako from you, since you could have grieved together. Of course, I may be making assumptions. I have no idea about the Japanese culture of grieving.

      I am sorry that my post brought back such sad memories, but I’m always grateful for your honest and thought-provoking comments. Josette (time for sleep)

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  2. This couldn’t be more apropos. You captured the feeling perfectly with your short yet powerful statements, “All my family is in Canada. I am in Korea.” I’ve come to like and enjoy the 12 hour flights across the pacific. I watch a few movies and I’m home or back at work before I know it. Through social media and Skype I talk to my family more often now than I did when I was living in the states. However the physical distance becomes very real when faced with illness or death. I learned of my grandmother’s passing last spring while observing a teacher’s lesson. My niece messaged me on facebook “Great Grandma is gone.” I was in shock. At first I thought, of course she is, my great grandma passed away a few years ago. Then I realized that she meant my grandmother – the most special person in my life. I went to the teachers lounge and paced around a bit before gathering myself and telling my colleagues what was going on. I told our course participants and then had to leave and go back home for awhile. I didn’t cry in front of my students, but not because I didn’t want to. Tears just don’t come easily for me. I was fortunate to learn of Kimberly’s passing while at home in the comfort of my family. Thanks for sharing these pictures of you two. I remember that trip as if it were yesterday. Most recently I received word through facebook that my dad has cancer. My mom tried to comfort me by ensuring me that I was “close and only a thought and a prayer away.” But I didn’t and still don’t feel close. I learned about this as our international Capoeira event was beginning. After our last workshop I broke down in tears – first time in years. It felt good. Everyone understood. After reading your post I got the courage to mention it to my general English students today in class. We went outside to enjoy the first days of spring and I felt moved to share. I didn’t cry this time. I feel better today. I’m moved by the thought of teachers and students supporting each other as equals and as people.

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    1. Kevin thank you so much for your emotionally honest response. When I read about how you broke down in tears during your capoiera event, I felt a wave of relief for you. You described so much sadness and grief in the events leading up to that day. You had told me before that tears don’t come easily for you, but knowing that you were able to let go at such an important moment in your life made me wonder if tears have a deeper spiritual significance for you. You possibly felt a strong spiritual connection at capoeira that supported you in your grief.

      I also feel happy, and surprisingly satisfied, to learn that my article inspired you to share your story with your students. I appreciate you letting me know. I just think that any event that brings people of different cultures together for good, is definitely an event worth sharing. By telling your students about your dad, I’m sure they learned a bit more about what it means to be alive in a world of shared emotions.

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  3. I am touched, Josette. Your cousin was a beautiful, resilient spirit, I can tell from the photos; looks like he carried on with life, sailing boats and travelling to China after he was paralized! More than most of us would do! I am sorry for you and your family’s loss and that you can’t be there with them to hug them right now. I am sending you a hug through time and space.

    My policy on teacher tears – regretfully I will say I avoid shedding them – I feel embarrassed when I do – but when I have, in a few rare moments, my students ended up crying too – at least the girls did. What is it with guys and tears??
    I have a student from Japan who is from the area damaged by the nuclear power plant. He hasn’t come to class since the earthquake as he is too embarrassed that he will shed tears. However, I wish he would come back to class and let some tears fall so that we could all empathize and grieve with him – especially my Chinese students – perhaps it would help soften their hearts towards Japan to personally know a Japanese person who is suffering. Perhaps it would connect us, for a few moments, in our humanity.
    Thanks for sharing, Jos!

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    1. I appreciate it Hails. It would be awesome to be with them right now.

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience about how tears in the classroom have affected you. It is true that they have some secret power. As you mentioned, being vulnerable might be exactly what your students need to see in order to understand their shared humanity. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in our cultural ego. When we see that we suffer the same pain, or love the same way despite our culture, the world becomes a better place.

      Thank you for the hug <3

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  4. Josette, I’m really sorry for your loss. I was wondering if I even bothered you for asking you some questions for teaching tips. I totally understand how you feel as I also once lost my important person when I was living in the U.S. away from Korea. Two weeks ago, I also cried in my teacher’s office and went back to my class as usual. Often times that kind of moments occured to me that it gave me such a hardtime. But I think it’s also important for teachers to ‘communicate’ with students since they will understand your feeling and we are all human beings. When students can see how teachers can also have some grieving moments and overcome some hardtime, they can also learn a lot from teachers not only about subject matter but also about wisdom and lessons in life.

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    1. Mina, thank you for the note and the concern. You didn’t bother me at all. Actually you brought a little joy to my day. You know how much I love talking about teaching. I was also happy to learn you were taking a piece of KITT into your classes.

      Yes, we are all human beings. Well said. This may be one of the most valuable lessons a teacher can convey to her/his students. I have no doubt that your gracious and compassionate perspective on life helps your students catch a glimpse of the beauty in humanity.

      Thank you for sharing your story about your own teacher tears. When we face hard times, they can bring such relief. Mina I wish you all the relief in the world. Life is a place to be celebrated.

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  5. Jos,
    I’m so sorry for your loss, but am happy that Daniel has finally found peace. I commend your approach to this matter with your students. It’s a great lesson in itself in compassion and grieving. After all, teachers are PEOPLE first and foremost, with emotions and vulnerable moments. You are a great teacher and those teacher tears will unintentionally teach your students about basic human grace and empathy, a lesson that will benefit them a great deal throughout their lives.

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    1. Nicole,
      Thank you so much for your support and words. I love what you wrote, “..those teacher tears will unintentionally teach your students about basic human grace and empathy, a lesson that will benefit them a great deal throughout their lives.” That is the hope for sure. We all need a little more human grace in our lives, don’t we? Beautifully said Nicole. Cheers to peace and compassion!

      Like

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