My Students Were Grieving. This Assignment Helped Me Understand Their...

Voices | Teaching and Learning

My Students Were Grieving. This Assignment Helped Me Understand Their Experiences.

By Veronica Wylie     Oct 3, 2022

My Students Were Grieving. This Assignment Helped Me Understand Their Experiences.

It was spring 2022 and we were completing our first full year of in-person learning since the start of the pandemic. The kids had been through so much. We all had.

Throughout 2020 and 2021, my students, colleagues and I were in and out of the building between virtual, hybrid and in-person learning because of closures and frequent quarantine periods. Each day that I came to work, I was painfully aware of my own grief, the grief surrounding me and the stressors that were making it challenging to bring my best self to the classroom.

I lost friends to COVID. I had friends who lost close family members. And I was handling financial woes and other responsibilities, all while attempting to stay afloat in the classroom.

One day a student walked in and when I greeted her and asked how she was doing, she responded: “I’m existing.” She knew me well enough not to lie and tell me that she was fine, so instead she expressed that she was physically present but emotionally absent. Other students heard her and nodded in agreement.

I wasn’t surprised by their honesty. I knew my students well and I checked in with them frequently. But I had failed to recognize that my students were struggling and grieving just like I was. Teachers in the building were struggling to navigate their emotions. If we were barely keeping it together, how were the kids getting by?

Instead of teaching my regularly scheduled lesson that day, I took my class for a walk in the courtyard, and we spent the rest of the period talking about how they were “existing.”

As I listened to them, I wondered how I could help meet their immediate emotional needs without sacrificing academic rigor.

The responsibility that I feel to be emotionally present for my students can be overwhelming at times, but I take it seriously. Before I was a science teacher, I was a chaplain and my experience doing chaplaincy work at a jail, at a hospital and with hospice patients have shaped my teaching. I regularly carve out time to talk to my students individually to help them feel seen, heard and valued. I encourage them to feel things, and to talk about the weight they carry, whether it’s with me or someone else. My students often say, “Ms. Wylie, you went into the wrong profession. Are you sure you’re not a therapist?”

The reality is that during the pandemic, many of my students experienced significant trauma and when they returned, they were in a state of healing, but they lacked a sufficient support system at home and at school.

I spoke with my principal who was also concerned. Apparently, students came to him frequently, but he felt his hands were tied regarding what services we could provide at school. We didn’t have funding for mental health services.

I suggested that we start an after school grief support group, and he told me to take some time to think it through. Then he made a suggestion which has stuck with me ever since. He said, “Ms. Wylie, be certain that whatever you decide to do actually meets student needs and doesn’t just make you feel better.”

I did want to feel better and I considered my ideas to be solid. But I realized that it was possible that what my students needed from me was different from what I was trying to offer. After having this epiphany, I decided to do something about it.

Figuring Out What My Students Needed

I end each semester with a student survey to gauge how my students felt about their learning experience and to find out which methods and practices best enriched their learning. Though the survey differs from year to year as I develop more insightful questions, it’s always focused on my students’ classroom experience. I want them to reflect on my instructional practices, the types of activities they enjoyed or disliked, and whether they were challenged. Did they feel protected and free to learn? Did anything in my classroom environment cause academic or emotional harm?

After everything my students had been through, it was time to change up the survey. Instead of asking them pointed questions about their learning, I wanted to give them space to share, without interruption.

So in addition to my typical set of survey questions, I made a crucial change. I attached three sheets of paper to their survey and asked my students to write three letters: a letter to me, a letter to themselves on the first day of school and a letter to the student who would sit in their seat for the upcoming school year.

Their level of vulnerability and honesty in their letters caused me to reflect more deeply on how I meet student needs.

What I Learned From My Students’ Letters

First, they wrote a letter to me. No rules. They could tell me anything—and they really did. Some students opened up about how difficult their personal lives were and some shared that they had been feeling depressed. Others reflected on how important having a cheerleader and receiving positive feedback was for them. Some letters were tough to read, with students writing, “I hate this class,” or “your homework caused a lot of fights in my home.”

That was OK, I wanted honest feedback about everything—our relationship, my classroom, what they learned. I thought it was remarkable that students felt comfortable critiquing my teaching style or requesting that I update my grades more often next school year. Their honesty let me know that they felt welcome to speak their minds, which meant that at least in some small way, they received what they needed from me this year.

I also received letters that reflected gratitude for being present with students, for comforting them or providing space to simply exist in peace. One student wrote, ”You took time out of your day to check on me at one of my lowest points, when no one else did.” Another wrote “I’ve sat many days in your class lost, depressed, sad and mad, and you’ve always comforted and understood me.” This particular student, I could tell, was not himself this year, but I had no idea he was troubled so deeply. Many of these letters provided a window into my students’ lived experience that I hadn’t seen before.

Next, students wrote a letter to themselves on the first day of school. I wanted them to take a moment to go beyond content, to reflect on their school year and to talk to themselves. What helped them make it through the year? What do they wish they had known on the first day of school? These reflections would help me consider what to provide for students during the upcoming school year.

“Dear self,” one student wrote, “This year will be different than all the others.” I wondered what that meant, but as I read further I understood. The letter unpacked the student’s experience returning to in-person learning during a moment when a new COVID variant was running through our community and our small town was seeing an increase in local violence. The student wrote vulnerably about those stressors combined with the fact that his teachers expected him to stretch intellectually.

It really was a unique year. Many of my students left for spring break as coddled eighth graders, missed their ninth grade year, and tenth grade was a real wake up call. Several students lost friends and family members to COVID, gun violence and other circumstances. They were open in their letters, and it became clear that they were struggling to engage in a post-pandemic reality with pre-pandemic normality.

Another student wrote, “I needed to hear that even though I may not be the best at the subject, I’m still smart, and that I’m not the only one struggling.” A third explained how she was not ready for some of the things she needed to navigate: “I wish I would’ve known the battles I would’ve faced this year. Some of them, I was not ready for at all.”

And in one wise letter, a student offered herself some mature advice: “It’s okay to feel like you aren’t doing as well as you are supposed to. So if you need to take a second to breathe, to cry, to put your head down and stare out a window or go for a walk, do that.”

Finally, students wrote to a peer who would sit in their seat on the first day of school next year. The goal? To provide next year’s class with the advice, encouragement and wisdom they needed on day one. A trend across the majority of letters was to offer advice for how to manage stress. Some offered words of encouragement like, “You’ve got this, stay focused,” while others warned students not to stress, and assured them that I wouldn’t let them fail. One letter stood out because of its unexpected author and his poetic honesty. This student was quiet and unexpressive throughout the school year, but he poured his heart out in his letter. “My wish for you all is that you see the light in this world, in yourself and in others. I see the light in you… Believe in yourself, you are smarter than you think… You win some, you lose some, but you will get back up again.”

Reading the letters helped me reflect on my own experiences and consider what changes I’d like to make to support students moving forward. Here are three things I took away from the letters:

  1. Taking the time to develop relationships with each student makes a big difference. Check in to see how students are feeling, give them space to breathe when they need it and always be genuine.
  2. Being present and aware of how students may be in a dark place can go a long way. It’s not always easy to tell when something difficult is going on in a student’s life, but we need to stay vigilant. Sometimes it’s noticing a lack of self confidence or a change in behavior. When we are aware of how our students feel, what they struggle with and the weight they carry, we have the power to support them.
  3. Ask students what they need. They’ll tell you. When my students perform poorly, I typically adjust my teaching style. I explore the data, spend hours agonizing over what it all means and then I alter my instructional strategies. But in the letters, several students expressed that sometimes, they just need to unload and get some things off their chest so they can focus. Understanding their needs allows us to provide patience, compassion and encouragement.

Teachers are doing so much. We spend hours creating lessons and grading papers, and our planning periods are short. I have a ridiculous pile of papers on my desk at any given time. But we have to be intentional about meeting the actual needs of our students, which we cannot do if we don’t know what they are. So, we’ve got to ask them. And sometimes we have to pause instruction so we can talk to them.

The letters reaffirmed for me the importance of building strong relationships with students, being aware of what they’re going through and staying open to making changes based on what students actually need

As I start this school year, I’m challenging myself to check in with my students early and often and to take more frequent mindfulness moments to help my students learn how to be present so they can handle their emotions in healthy ways.

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