When You Lose a Student

Charles VerheyTeacher Life

February 1, 2019
Audrey Irias

College doesn’t prepare you for how to deal with losing a student or how to take care of students who are affected. Only time heals you and, sometimes, only partially so.

I had a popular basketball student who took Spanish 1 and 2 with me. He chose the name “Paco” for our class, and he made me laugh every day. He took this class with his best friend, “Chucho.” They were inseparable. Paco was not serious about my class—but boy, he was serious about basketball and his friends, so I tried to make lessons tailored to his interests. He was happy to come to class and liked helping out, though he wasn’t invested in turning in all of his work or getting the best of grades. The one time he did not follow the rules, he said it wasn’t worth it for me to call home, because no one would care and it wouldn’t make a difference. I talked with him often and we had a genuine trust and respect for one another, so it didn’t happen again.

Paco graduated at the end of Spanish 2, having gotten into the closest community college. Unfortunately, a few weeks into the school year, I received an email at the beginning of second hour, stating that he had died the night before. I started crying right then and there. Some of the students in that room knew him, so it was hard. I was actually teaching Chucho’s sister, who considered Paco like a brother.

Similarly, it is worth talking about when students lose a family member. Similar to losing a close classmate, you have to give students a chance to grieve. I had students who normally paid attention, turned in all their work on time, and earned high marks, barely able to keep it together, after losing a parent. Here are a few things I allowed grieving students to do, for a class or two, depending on the student and the situation:

  • Put their head down or simply zone out.
  • See the school social worker.
  • Follow along in class but an assigned classmate would write down a copy of the notes for them.
  • Give them extra time to turn in work or to make up an assessment, within a particular perimeter of time that both parties agreed to.

If one student was grieving, I would pull them aside and tell them those things, but would openly say it to the class if tragedy struck the entire class or school. Just saying the words that give students the space and time to heal, means a lot to them. Sometimes students take advantage of your generosity, but I had such a relationship with my students that they didn’t, generally speaking.

It was especially difficult for grieving students to participate during the Day of the Dead holiday, which I don’t celebrate in the classroom, necessarily. Rather, we discuss it from a sociological and historical perspective. Instead of doing the same type of projects centered around that holiday, that student would do a Celebration of Life project and other alternative activities.

Regardless of what you are teach in class, some activities that you could have students do at this time would be to write in their journal, have open-ended questions to answer, and do independent-reading activities, to allow them to express their thoughts and feelings. If you are grieving, taking a paid day off or playing a movie (with a packet) could be a good idea to do. Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too, and allow yourself time to grieve.

My advice to others is to take heart in the moments you have with the students, since life is precious and you never know what type of difference you make in their lives.

Posted By Audrey Yates Irias | Teacher’s Discovery

Audrey Yates Irias started learning Spanish at age 10 in a FLEX program in her elementary school, because her aunt lived in Puerto Rico. She was so enamored with learning languages that she dove in head first, and took multiple years of French and Spanish in high school. Following her passion, she was a double major in Spanish and French Education and a TESOL minor, at Illinois State University—during which time she studied in Spain and France. She taught for 11 years in both traditional as well as virtual classrooms. In 2016, she earned her master’s in Translation and Interpreting from the University of Illinois.