Teaching Through the Trauma of Student Loss

Opinion | Teaching and Learning

Teaching Through the Trauma of Student Loss

By David Stieber     Mar 13, 2023

Teaching Through the Trauma of Student Loss

The original version of this essay was published by the TRiiBE.

In my 16 years teaching in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), I have lost more students than years I have taught. During my teacher preparation in college, I had fears about how to create engaging lesson plans, how to make connections with students and how to help students who needed more support. I learned the basics of how to be a teacher in my college classes and then learned even more during student teaching from experienced educators. My mom was an educator in Michigan, so I knew that teaching would be extremely rewarding and also extremely frustrating. The one thing I never learned, or was even remotely prepared for, was what to do when a student dies.

Everyone that I know and respect who works in a school building always goes above and beyond for the students. We want to give our students every great school experience that we can. We try not to, but we think about lesson plans, grading and how to better connect with our students even when we aren’t at school — on weeknights and weekends. We dwell on that one kid we haven’t been able to reach yet and think of ways to connect with them and engage them in our class.

So how does an educator even begin to cope when a desk that was once filled by a student who they knew and built a relationship with goes empty because that young person is no longer alive? How do we cope when we taught and mentored a student and saw them graduate — only to see on social media that their life is over?

These aren’t things we are taught — and school systems across the country lack adequate support. In Chicago, our schools are already criminally short on social workers and counselors. We went on strike in 2019 for 11 days, in part so we could make sure every Chicago Public School had a social worker by 2024. As of 2022, Chicago had one social worker for roughly every 520 students. The National Association of Social Workers says schools that are experiencing high levels of trauma should have one social worker for every 50 students.

That’s not the only problematic ratio. Chicago Public Schools has four crisis counselors for over 340,000 students. As I have learned through the deaths of my own students, these four crisis counselors go to a school to help the students dealing with the loss of a classmate and friend. These crisis counselors come for a day and then leave, but the school’s staff is supposed to pick up the pieces after that, with no additional sustained support.

The first student I ever lost passed away on a cold January night in 2011. My assistant principal called me early the next morning to tell me that Trevell was killed. I taught him as a freshman in 2007 — he was in the first class of students that I ever taught.

I remember Trevell giving a speech in my class about the need for Black-owned businesses in Woodlawn and Englewood, two neighborhoods in Chicago. When Trevell was killed as a senior, he was preparing to head to college. I remember going to school and worrying more about my students and how to make sure they were okay. I — and every adult in the building — tried to play the role of a therapist and support students, even if it meant ignoring our own pain. That is a cycle that gets repeated time and time again in school buildings across this city, every time a student dies.

Since then, I keep a list of students’ names on my phone — students I taught who have died. That list continues to grow. Now, it’s at 22. These are the students I taught and talked to daily, who I cared for, was playfully annoyed by and loved deeply.

These students are no longer here because of intra-communal violence, police violence and tragic accidents. When the number of students on the list climbs, I get anxious. As it approached 10 student deaths, I remember saying to myself, “I am not sure how I will react if I ever have 10 students die.” Ten deaths came, nothing changed; students, staff and families still grieved, but the trauma of loss compounded.

For the past 16 years, I’ve honestly tried not to think about these losses, let alone talk about them, because if I bring them up, the emotions overwhelm me. It is like a fog rests on my brain. After many student losses and much encouragement, I hesitantly started seeing a therapist. I sat for an hour not wanting to tell my therapist about why I was even there because it was so painful.

I’ve also been hesitant to talk about student loss publicly because I didn’t feel worthy of the deep pain I felt for them. These students had families and loved ones who were experiencing the loss much more profoundly than I was. I also worried about people commenting horrible things about my students if I shared my grief for them publicly. I have grown used to criticism and trolls hating on teachers, but the thought that people might blame my students for their own deaths — that hits different.

The cycle of violence and trauma continues, prayers are given and children are blamed for being with the wrong people or making the wrong choices. There are no “good” or “bad” kids. There are just kids. We must break the habit of trying to justify how sad we should feel when a student dies, depending on their level of “goodness.” It is as if when a kid who has all the support that they need dies, then we should feel deeper sadness than when a kid who should be getting more support dies. It is as if a child’s struggle absolves us of the same level of sadness.

Violence and tragedy have become so normalized in our city and society. Every time a student has died in this city, the mayor — whether it be Daley, Emanuel or Lightfoot — has said how sad they are and sent their prayers, but we need more counselors, social workers and mental health providers for the students in our schools. Educators have been demanding an increase in those supports since I started teaching in 2007. Officials are not developing policies to help create safer communities for our kids to live and thrive in.

The situation has not improved since we lost Trevell. Students are still being killed, as we have seen this year, sometimes right outside the schools they attend. I don’t want educators to experience student loss. I want our students to be safe and I want politicians who will actually invest in neighborhoods, with job creation and youth activities, and who will invest in mental health resources for our schools.

When any young person in this city dies, I instantly start to think about every empty desk in my classroom. I think about the balloon releases, the social media posts and the funerals. I worry about losing more students. I worry about my colleagues across the city, teaching through the trauma caused by the loss of students.

The trauma of student loss not only makes me remember the students who I have tragically lost, it also makes me afraid to lose the students who are in front of me. Through therapy, I have realized that I started to put distance between myself and my students because I was picturing losing them and trying not to get attached. Therapy has kept me in the profession. I have learned how to work through the pain with a trained professional. Without it, I would be a distant father and spouse as the grief would consume me at times — and I would likely not be teaching.

In addition to the tragedies at Michele Clark High School and Benito Juarez High School in 2022, my school — Kenwood Academy High School — also experienced losing a student. I didn’t know this student personally, but hearing about his death made me think of every student I had lost. Kanye, the student from Kenwood, was killed at the gas station where I used to get our family van repaired. It was a normal corner, outside a high school. It was the corner where my partner and I lived during our first six years in the neighborhood, a corner my mom walks past daily, a corner where our students buy snacks after school.

I don’t want this or the next generation of teachers to have to figure out the coping mechanisms that I’ve learned. I don’t want this generation of students to fear existing.

We shouldn’t be experiencing loss in our schools or our communities. We should see politicians writing policy on the local and national level to create jobs, fund after-school programs and at least double the required recommendations for counselors, psychologists and social workers in schools. We need to stop relying on teachers to counsel our students, and hire the trained experts.

Every single student and staff member in our schools should be getting more support so we aren’t forced to fight this normalized violence and trauma alone. I’m thankful that the Chicago Teachers Union is and has been fighting for wraparound services for our students and schools, and that Alderperson Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez of the 33rd Ward has written policy so that Chicagoans can get treatment, not more trauma — which one of the Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson will implement, if elected on April 4. I am thankful to organizations such as GoodKidsMadCity that have concrete proposals like the Peace Book Ordinance to provide resources and plans to establish the practice of peace.

Before this school year started, I talked to my partner and told her I was going to try to open up more about student death. She asked if I could handle it, not because she thought I couldn’t, but because she knows the toll it takes on me to do so. I’ve realized that everything that’s hard to talk about is worth talking about.

The hopes and wishes of politicians have their place, but don’t replace the policy change and investment our students have deserved for generations. There are no “bad” students, just failed policies put forth by bad leaders. And because of this, we all suffer.

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