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Teaching through Grief

A blogpost reflecting on current loss and having to return to the classroom in the midst of grief.  Teaching is such a relational job that it can be nearly impossible to when suffering personal trials.  These thoughts are some of the things I've learned through our own grief and what it looked like returning to work.

This is a really hard topic for me to write about, but I told myself when I started this blog I would only write about things I was experiencing so I could write authentically, and this is what we are currently walking through right now so I think it is necessary to share.  I don’t want to pretend, by any means, that I am an expert on this AT ALL, but I do want to give a little context for this post and the current grief we are processing through and what that has looked like as I’ve continued to teach through it.

It is hard as a teacher to have hard things going on in your personal life, and not let it affect your work life.  Teaching isn’t like many jobs where you can hide away in your cubicle and keep to yourself, or easily skip a day when you wake up and feel like you just can’t face an audience of students.  Our job is entirely relational.  We show so much of who we are to our students and we share life with them.  Especially if you are an elementary teacher, you are spending more time with these kids than some of their parents do each day.  For high school teachers like me, we are interacting with young adults who we have real and deep relationships with as we get to know them in our classrooms.  This is NOT a job that is easy to do in grief.

I can’t even begin to fathom the reasons behind the grief that led many of you to this blogpost.  I firmly believe that suffering cannot be compared as it is all relative to each of our individual situations, so I won’t even pretend to be able to relate to where you are in your specific trials.  But I will, as painfully as it may be, let you in to our current suffering and what I am learning through it about how to keep doing my job.

As many of you know who follow me on Instagram, my husband and I decided to start our family through adoption last May.  We were home study approved and waiting on September 12, 2017.  On October 12th we got the sweetest call – we had been picked by an expectant mother!!

This will forever be one of my favorite photos, as it so purely exemplifies our joy in the moment.  My husband was so excited to share the news with me he came by my school and told me after tutoring.

The baby was set to be due mid-January.  We spent the next few months preparing – we met the mother, wrote her letters, and told all our people.  In December the mother sent us the ultrasound pictures and we discovered the baby was a GIRL!

I had to let my students and school in because I was planning to take 12 weeks maternity leave when the baby arrived.  My students and coworkers were THRILLED!  My principal helped me find two amazing long-term subs (they each took half of my day because my schedule is SO NUTS this year they couldn’t find one person willing to tackle the whole thing…haha).  I spent winter break printing and organizing all of my maternity leave plans and color-coding ALL THE THINGS to make the transition as smooth as possible for the students, parents, and subs.  I spent the first few weeks of January finding different teachers to help take over running each of the different Spirit Week events – a week I am in charge of with Student Council that would fall during my maternity leave.  So many people were so helpful in our preparation.  All the while at home I was of course prepping the nursery!

My favorite little corner in the room.

Then January came and we waited!  And waited…and waited.  Every day I walked in the students would say, “No baby yet??”  Until one day I actually wasn’t there!  We got the call that the mother was being induced.  Two days later, the sweet baby girl was born.  Two days after that, when we expected to pick up the baby from the hospital that day, we sorrowfully discovered that the mother had checked out of the hospital already with the baby, having chosen to parent instead of place.

The loss felt like a death.  We couldn’t even walk past our nursery.  I still can’t open the dresser drawers and see all of the sweet baby girl things.  Our community was amazing and came around us but in the back of my mind I knew I would have to eventually return to school, and face all of my coworkers and students who thought we were home loving on our sweet newborn baby.

My administration at school was kind enough to allow me the freedom to come back when I was ready.  But would I really ever be ready?  Grief comes in waves.  One minute you are functioning normally, the next you can find it hard to breath.  I found myself talking to a dear friend totally rationally, and then bursting in tears to the checkout lady at Publix.  How was I to know when I would be “ready” enough?  Ready to get back to “normal” when things wouldn’t ever be normal again?

Here is what I’ve learned as I currently walk through this, and I hope helps anyone else walking through this.  You will never be ready to go back.  You take AS MUCH TIME AS YOU NEED, but know that it’s just going to be hard when you go back, and that’s okay.  It does get easier each day after the first.  I knew I needed to get back after a week because 1. I couldn’t watch anymore Netflix and 2. I didn’t want to use up any more sick days in case we get a call for another baby later this year and I want them saved for that maternity leave. But everyone’s healing looks different and depending on your grief and your personality, you may need more (or less) time than that.

I do suggest going back mid-week, so that you don’t start having to knock out a full 5 days.  I returned on a Wednesday in the middle of Spirit Week, which although it was semi-insane, it was also nice because there was a lot going on to keep me distracted, and I only had to power through a few days before I could recover over the weekend.

I also suggest clearing your evenings for the first week you go back.  Grief is exhausting and it was so nice to know that when that bell rang at 3, I could head straight home to my couch and not to my usual evening activities (we have something normally almost every night of the week, it is a bit ridiculous.)

BEFORE you go back, I suggest emailing your administrator to see if they will prep the faculty and your students for you.  Of course this may not be something you want to do if you are suffering something more private, but if it is something your faculty and students already know about, let your administrator prepare everyone for you.  It was so nice to know that I wouldn’t have to re-tell our whole story to all of my coworkers, because my principal already gave them the SparkNotes version and told them to not ask.  He also personally went around to each of my classes to let them know I was returning and why, since many of them thought they wouldn’t see me again until April.  This helped eliminate a LOT of potentially rude and hurtful questions that kids may have unknowingly asked had they not known.  It also led to me getting some really tender and encouraging messages from coworkers and students I never would have expected to reach out, so that was incredibly up-lifting.

I would also encourage you to be honest and open with your students about what you are going through.  They obviously don’t need you downloading on them, but especially if you teach high school, they can handle and understand the fact that you just won’t be able to be yourself for a while, and you will be surprised by the grace that many of them will show you in that.  I’ve accidentally cried in front of a few high school boys and it has definitely been awkward but IT IS OKAY – we all survived.

Know that it is also totally okay to ask to take a break from some of your extra responsibilities.  When hard things are happening in your personal life, it is impossible to spend all of the extra time we normally invest in our jobs after the hours of 8-3.  I thought this would be hard for me to let go but it honestly wasn’t.  I was too tired to do all of the things so I was willing to ask for help way more than normal.

Speaking of help, humble yourself and let others serve you.  So many people wanted to cook for us, bring Starbucks, help with grading papers, etc.  It was hard to say yes to letting people do things I am fully capable of doing for myself.  But it also let people help who really wanted to do something, and it made mine and my husband’s lives easier, so I just let them.  Humility is hard but really sweet too.

One last thought.  At some point, everyone else is going to forget and move on, and you will still be stuck in your grief and processing.  It’s okay to take some time off once you get back if you need it.  Making sub plans is the worst, I know, but it’s amazing what a 3-day weekend (especially in that longggggggggg stretch between President’s Day and Spring Break) can do for the soul.  I have major control issues (everyone reading this who has adopted is LOL-ing at me right now because adoption is SO OUT OF OUR CONTROL) and Jesus is working me through those (gotta love sanctification) but for some reason I think that everything will fall apart if I have to leave or take time off.  It won’t.  Your kids will survive.  Their educations are not ruined because you are gone for a week, or two, or three.  They will make it, and so will you.

I hope this is helpful for even one other person, because then at least baring my soul on the internet in this way was worth it.  Again, I am a complete rookie at this, and am sure life will bring me many more seasons of grief, so I would love any and all advice or suggestions from any of you who have had to teach through your grief.

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