How I teach - Facing tragedy head-on

28th March 2014 at 00:00
Loss can teach valuable lessons, if we're not afraid to look at it

The most difficult time to teach is when there are more important life lessons taking place for students outside school. Rather than ignoring these trials - or trying to compete with them - I find that some of the most valuable things we can teach students come from heartbreaking events beyond the classroom. The following is one such example.

The school year began with the arrival of a new student, Jos; an 11-year-old boy with leukaemia and five years' experience of endless visits to hospitals. When he came to our school, the doctors had told his parents that there was not much they could do. Nonetheless, the faith that everything would improve was present every day.

The group that Jos joined did not hesitate to accept him and make him part of the gang - we embraced him in the same way we would any new arrival. Jos didn't look sick. On the contrary, he was brimming with the vitality of his age group. He adapted to the new school without difficulty and his academic performance was outstanding.

Then the inevitable happened: Jos was admitted to hospital. It was clear right away that he was extremely sick - just three months after starting the year, it was likely that he would not return to school. He had a very poor outlook for recovery.

And that was when I faced one of the biggest challenges in my life as a teacher. How would I help my students to deal with the death of a friend?

First, I talked to them about similar experiences. It was reassuring to hear about the grief of classmates who had lost relatives or family friends. Students who were confused about the situation found new points of view, and groups helped to keep communication open. We achieved a very close connection between group members.

Jos was in intensive care so we couldn't visit him, but my students had the idea of making cards with words of encouragement and farewell. It was difficult because we were all aware that this was a farewell not just to school but to life. The most important thing was to express what he had left us, how much we loved him, how much he taught us by his example and how wonderful it was that we got to share his life.

When we were making cards and posters, our feelings came to the surface. Many of Jos's classmates wept recalling times they had shared, but there were also laughs at fond memories. Dedicating lesson time to the activity was well worth it - we were sad, but there was also a sense of relief that we had tackled the issue in a productive way, not ignored it or wallowed doing nothing helpful. We felt that we had done Jos justice.

All our thoughts were stuck on the window in Jos's hospital room so he could read them - how wonderful it was to know that they put a smile on his face. It is clear to me that life lessons are as important as academic ones. When terrible things happen, we should not hide from them but instead dedicate class time to tackling the issues and ensuring we can learn from them.

Carmen Marn is a teacher at Colegio Laureles IAP in Chiapas, Mexico

Top 10 resources for dealing with bereavement

1. Views on death

This lesson introduces students to the subject in an open and honest way, and explores societal attitudes to death.

2. Shared experience

In tough times, knowing someone else has been through the same thing can be invaluable. This short video from NHS Choices documents young people's experiences of bereavement.

3. Box of memories

This Sesame Street video is ideal for younger children who are dealing with a bereavement. Elmo's cousin, Jessie, shows him her memory box, a place where she keeps things that remind her of her dad.

4. Facts of life

Discussing the basic facts about bereavement - how you are likely to feel and what symptoms you may experience - is a great first step to helping students. This information sheet provides a useful prompt.

5. Helping hands

Use this lesson from Child Bereavement UK to explore the concepts of dying and death with young learners.

6. Tailored response

This short clip from Teachers TV highlights the different ways in which primary and secondary schools can support bereaved students.

7. First-hand experience

In this video, television presenter Diane-Louise Jordan talks about the death of her sister and the challenges of balancing work and care commitments.

8. Focus on feelings

Use these planning documents, worksheets and activities to broach the topic of bereavement and celebrate people who meant something to your students.

9. Professional advice

This guidance from a grief counsellor covers how best to help children cope with the loss of a loved one and say their final goodbyes.

10. Documented lives

In this selection of clips, people talk about their experiences of bereavement and living with a terminal illness. There are also links to teaching resources on palliative care.


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