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On Writing About Loss, Healing, and Supporting Teachers

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I published an article in the most recent issue of Schools: Studies in Education. The full title is “A Call for Healing Teachers: Loss, Ideological Unraveling, and the Healing Gap.” I want to say a few words about how I wrote this article and why.

The first paragraph of the article is something of a content/trigger warning and something of a disclaimer: this article is about coping with grief as a teacher. It requires talking about pain and I try to acknowledge that 1. If that’s not the kind of thing you want to read about, don’t read this article for now (I get it) and 2. I share three different accounts of loss in the article but don’t presume that these are at all representative of others’ feelings of loss and coping.

With that explanation and warning re-stated, here are the first four paragraphs of the article:

Sometimes words are too loud for the sensitive task of sense-making they must endure. Considering this, the paragraphs that follow excavate and interrogate feelings of loss tied to my experiences as a teacher as well as those of my colleagues. I do not seek to essentialize these feelings but recognize that the process of defining and analyzing loss—the very project at the heart of this article—may feel unsettling. Staring back into the eyes of grief can be painful, confrontational, incomprehensible (Caruth 1996). I offer what follows as an analysis of loss, death, and uncertainty as intertwined with classroom teaching experiences. Furthermore, I want to be clear that grief ’s origins are myriad and it molds to innumerable shapes. I do not paint a definitive portrait of how it manifests in the lives of teachers. Instead, I seek to explore how the complexities of race, class, and gender within classrooms offer opportunities for teacher solidarity in healing, particularly within historically marginalized school communities.

My father died two months into my second year as a teacher.

Perhaps the one saving grace of teaching on an otherwise inequitable year-round schedule was that I had ample time to spend with my father in his remaining weeks in a hospital. With the months of September and October of that year set aside as a break in our academic year, I had time to mourn before returning to the needs of the eleventh- and twelfth-graders in my classroom.

I swam through the first half of that school year numb and confused. Flashbacks of the beeping IV jellyfish that accompanied my father in his final weeks and his strangled raspy breaths in his final hours would invade my attempts at teaching American literature and half-hearted bouts of grading papers. I wasn’t prepared for the tangled feelings of personal grief and professional responsibility that I faced daily that year. From all outward appearances, I taught and acted like I did the previous year. I also often felt similar: confused, lost, overwhelmed. I wasn’t able to separate my sense of being overwhelmed by work from my feelings of being overcome with grief, and so I went through the year assuming that this was how most teachers new to the profession felt. Scholarship from my teacher education courses, discussions with veteran teachers, and conversations with friends who were also wading through the debris of neophyte teaching converged around the steep learning curve of the profession. For better or worse, the creation myth of teacher preparation dictates that this is what becoming a teacher feels like: a phoenix-like transformation, a soul-crushing process of exhaustion, confusion, and embarrassing missteps in the classroom that, a few years on the other side, would produce a world-weary teacher ready to battle the great day, year, and career of teaching.

I wrote this article amidst growing frustration with the lack of emotional support for teachers, particularly in the context of escalating violence and politicized fear. I wrote this prior to my co-authored essay focused on healing in an era of Trumpism. That it’s published now—amidst constant headlines of school-related gun violence and of legislation that restricts the rights of women over their own bodies and of the myriad other forces that are causing trauma and pain to teachers daily—feels fitting.

I’ve continued to grow frustrated with the limitations of social and emotional learning (SEL) as a means of supporting teacher life. And so, while I offer a few ideas of how to move our field of teacher education forward, I wrote this article committed to trying to push for healthier ways to support teachers in classrooms today. If you are a teacher or in teacher ed and doing this work around healing as well, I’d love to continue a dialogue with you (I am not presuming this article is by any means the start of this conversation… we’ve been circling these topics across happy hours, across hashtags, and across strained text messages and phone calls for a long time).

As a final note, I know that the acknowledgments sections of articles are usually skipped over. They are typically a place for nodding toward funders and reviewers. But I do want to pull some attention to words often overlooked and placed so near the gutter:

I would like to thank Victoria Theisen-Homer and Lauren Yoshizawa for their substantive feedback on earlier drafts of this article. I also want to thank the two anonymous teachers who allowed me to share their stories in this article. Finally, I want to recognize the powerful contributions of Antonio N. Martinez, whose contributions as a scholar and as a friend weighed heavily on me as I completed this article.

A lot of help goes into the academic labor of publishing. I benefit from the often overlooked labor of thoughtful respondents. I get to share the words and experiences of two anonymous (and amazing) teachers that allowed me to learn alongside their narratives. And I wrote this article sitting in the powerful scholarship of a friend I wish I could still continue to learn with and from. While there are a lot of “I”s in this article, it was built from the generosity of time, of ideas, and of friendship of a whole lot of other folks.

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