Dealing With Grief In The Classroom

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Given recent news on the conflict in Gaza and the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, thoughts naturally go out to the bereaved. Loss of any kind is a difficult thing to deal with, and for those suffering, grief can surface at any time and in any place.

This week I would like to share a few stories of times when grief of various kinds has come into the EFL classroom.

Some years ago I had the privilege of teaching a Japanese World War II veteran, a medical man. We had a good relationship; he was eager to talk about his wartime experiences and would jokingly announce to new students and other teachers that he had fought against my grandfather! One lesson, when he was the only student to come to class, he asked if we could change the topic to an informal discussion of favorite war movies.

While we were talking about which films he had enjoyed and why, he mentioned Saving Private Ryan, a movie whose opening scenes include graphic reconstructions of the 1944 D-Day landings at Normandy’s Omaha Beach. After listening to his thoughts on the film I mentioned that a university friend of mine had lost his father in a beach assault and that when my friend watched that movie he realized how awful his father’s final moments on earth must have been.

Finishing the story, during which I had been busy writing down new vocabulary, I looked up to see that the old doctor had tears streaming down his face.

On another occasion a student was looking unusually glum before a lesson so in walking past her classroom I popped my head around the door to ask if she was okay. She brightened up, smiled, and said of course she was fine; she was just thinking about something. We exchanged a little small talk and then I went on my way.

Much later she came up to me and reminded me of our conversation that day, saying how much it had meant to her. She hadn’t wanted to make a scene, but her mother had been very ill at the time and it had meant a lot to her that someone had noticed her state of mind and made an effort to cheer her up.

Another time, in a kids’ class teaching vocabulary around family life, it became obvious that one of the boys was not happy. The teacher steered the lesson in a different direction and the boy’s behavior improved. A staff member later told us that this student’s parents had recently separated and he was having a very difficult time.

Similarly, another young student would get upset over apparently insignificant things such as finishing second in a game or forgetting a word. After talking to his parents we found out that he was being bullied in school and that this was affecting all aspects of his life.

The point of all this is that as teachers we are often thinking in terms of lesson plans and lesson outcomes, but the reality is that we are dealing with people, some of whom will be experiencing personal difficulties. Sickness, death, family break ups, personal issues, relationship problems and deep-seated grief; all can be present in the classroom without us realizing it.

What to do about it?

The first thing is to remember that people lead complex lives and we must expect outside issues to intrude on the classroom at times. The second thing is to be sensitive and sympathetic towards people who may be having difficulties. The third thing is to ask for advice from staff or other teachers if a student is behaving unusually or if you feel that a situation may be beyond your control. Unfortunately, the third is a particularly important point for teachers dealing with needy students who may mistake natural sympathy for something different.

While we have little ability to prevent the catastrophic events that occur in life, what we can do as teachers is make allowance for grief and hurt, attempt to alleviate these when we find them, and do our best to be people who make a positive difference in our students’ lives.

As the saying goes, a little kindness and understanding goes a long way.

And what of the doctor, you may wonder? Brushing off my awkward attempt at commiseration, he talked about Das Boot until the tears stopped. He was too proud a man to need sympathy from me.

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Runs a school, teaches, blogs.

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  • Jamming James says:

    Grief can be a hard thing to deal with in a classroom setting. I think it’s much easier to deal with if it’s from students who I have known for a while and/or I have a great relationship with, but it’s still a sensitive topic. Sometimes I think if you have the flexibility to do so, spending some time just chatting with a student about it, if they bring it up, can really help them through it.

    I had a student who was in his 70’s and had lost his dog not long before, who he loved dearly. The next class we had together it was just the two of us in the class and we spent almost the entire class talking about how great his dog was, where and how he got him etc, and he even had a few photos to show me. It was wonderful that he felt comfortable enough to share his feelings and pain with me. Then when he left he straighten up and marched out the door like any other day.

  • Tom says:

    Try watching Great Teacher Onizuka.

  • Zico El Mouddene says:

    Really excellent article.

    Are you still in contact with that WWII Veteran ? i would be grateful if you could answer some of my questions as my fiancée(japanese) is doing her research on that matter.

    Thank you

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