From the Front Lines

Before a New School Year Begins, We Must Grieve

I was walking with a teacher friend this weekend and discussing the uncertainty of the next school year. “I want to sit on the rug with all of my students on the first day of school,” I said. “I want to read our first day of school read aloud.” The image practically brought tears to my eyes and my heart felt heavy with grief.
As school systems across the country grapple with reopening during a pandemic, teachers are justifiably angry. Once again we’ve been left out of the decision making. Right now there are more questions than answers. How will we keep our students and ourselves safe? How can our old and over-crowded buildings meet the unique challenges of social distancing? How will remote or blended learning meet the needs of students and families?
There is a lot to be angry about. But something we must acknowledge as another source of anger is our grief.
Reflecting On What We’ve lost
We lost a lot this past school year: the stability of our normal day to day, our in-person communities of adults and young people, a sense of self-efficacy when we jumped into the unknown world of remote learning. We lost touch with the students. We lost loved ones.
I have been fortunate not to lose anyone to COVID, but I know all of these other losses personally. This summer I am coming to terms with the grief I feel over these losses. As I think about next year, I feel overwhelmed. I realize before I can come to terms with the uncertainty of a new school year, I need to grieve over the real losses of the past one.
I realize before I can come to terms with the uncertainty of a new school year, I need to grieve over the real losses of the past one. Click To Tweet
Why We Need to Grieve
Thankfully, a friend of mine gifted me The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief by Francis Weller. This summer I began reading this book, and it has been incredibly powerful in connecting me to the immense grief I have been holding from this school year.
Reading Weller reminded me that our society and our profession don’t offer us a lot of space for grief. United States culture often prizes the rugged individual. Stoicism and emotional restraint are specially reinforced in white and male culture.
I think teachers often practice a lot of emotional restraint. Sometimes this is well-intended — I don’t want to lose my temper with my students — but sometimes I notice I am too quick to bottle in my emotions out of a sense of obligation to the work in front of me. I feel this pressure now. The next school year is going to require tremendous adaptability and fortitude. I am struggling to reflect on the year that has just ended because I don’t want to be unprepared for what’s ahead.
But I know that I can and must make space for what I just experienced. Weller writes, “Grief is subversive, undermining the quiet agreement to behave and be in control of our emotions. It is an act of protest that declares our refusal to live numb and small…. Because of that, grief is necessary to the vitality of the soul.”
I wonder what processing this unique grief — the grief for a profession that is suddenly changed beyond recognition — might look like. I know some of this work will happen internally and individually. Writing, or other acts of creativity can be helpful to process big feelings. But equally important is doing this communally. It could be powerful to gather with our school communities, virtual Professional Learning Communities, or other teacher communities, and make space for our collective grief. Could we do this via Zoom gatherings? Through protesting? Some way or another we should make space for these feelings.
What I Want to Grieve
I want to say goodbye to the school year that has ended. I want to acknowledge how much I miss that community I imagined when walking with my friend. As flawed as public schooling is, there is still something tremendously special about the work we do. I miss sharing space and time with twenty-something young people, learning, questioning, arguing, laughing, just being together. My best moments of remote teaching didn’t come close.
I also want to acknowledge the profound sadness I feel over how my city and country has (mis)handled the pandemic. I feel like the community I serve in Central Harlem, and so many others like it have been effectively abandoned. Remote learning left many of my students behind, even many who were able to overcome internet access, language, and other barriers. Many families in our community were struggling with housing, job, and food insecurity before COVID. The pandemic has only amplified these inequities.
At this point, if we’ve given up on keeping our communities safe from COVID. We are leaving poor and working-class people with a choice between starvation or sickness/death. The physical, emotional, and economic devastation is almost too much to comprehend. Those of us working in schools are being sucked into this whirlpool of capitalist disregard for human life. In order to send workers back to work, schools must reopen. But of course, our schools aren’t getting any proper funding to open safely.
What other reaction is there to this reality than rage… and grief? How can we not look at this callous indifference for Black, Indigenous, Latinx, undocumented lives and feel anything other than deep sadness?
Looking to the school year ahead requires us to come to terms with the year behind us, and the present disaster. We have experienced great losses. These losses are ongoing. These losses deserve our grief. We deserve the time and space to acknowledge this heartbreak. Only then can we be ready for the uncertain challenges ahead of us.

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