Voices in Education

Claiming Our Grief And Our Joy

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Last March 12th, teachers, students and families, and I were informed that the schools in our network would be closed for the next month because of rising cases of COVID-19 in the San Francisco Bay Area. Instead of meeting as a staff and circling up for a day of professional development that Friday, teammates scrambled to make copies and assemble learning packets for each one of our students. I recall grabbing a few items from my classroom, cleaning out some mugs, and casually telling other teachers, “see ya in a few weeks” before heading out of the building. I had a smile on my face and no idea what was to come. 

Those weeks turned into months, and those months turned into a full year. 

Acknowledging Our Grief

I want to take a moment and acknowledge the collective grief that teachers across the country may be experiencing but may not have yet the opportunity or space to process and mourn. Do not apologize for what comes up during this one year anniversary.

When I think of grief, I think about the strong and sometimes lingering feelings that come up when someone who you love is taken from you unexpectedly. What I have learned this past year is that other types of loss can cause feelings of grief including the loss of connection and sense of community, the loss of routine and structure, and loss of a sacred or safe space. Because I have experienced grief in my lifetime after the loss of a loved one, I understand the importance to make a distinction. 

Giving It A Name

I knew there had to be a word to capture this distinction but I could not put my finger on it. So, I did some research. What is it called when we experience loss but it isn’t a person we lose? Is it still called grief? I saw terms like “grief by proxy,” “complicated grief,” and “ambiguous grief” pop up but they did not seem to capture what I was looking for. I then came across this idea of “disenfranchised grief” first coined by grief researcher, Ken Doka. 

So what is it? One’s grief is “disenfranchised” or deprived and neglected when that grief comes from loss that is not openly acknowledged, socially supported, or deemed worthy of grieving by society. My ears perked up when I read this and knew that this could be that distinction I was looking for. In our case as teachers, many things in our lives changed when we were asked to pack up things and to start teaching from home. So what did we lose when schools closed? The loss of our daily bright spots and mini-moments, our safe spaces, our deep connections to members of our school community, our relationships that took time and love to build, our proximity to our students and families, our opportunity to say goodbye to students and families who have had to leave our school community, our sense of purpose, and so much more. These are immense and deeply personal parts of us that we were not asked to give up, but forced to give up. This is the disenfranchised grief of teachers. This topic is also discussed to different degrees in Teachers Grieve! What can We Do for Our Colleagues and Ourselves When a Student Dies? by Leslie J. Munson and Nancy Hunt, Exhausted and Grieving: Teaching During the Coronavirus Crisis by Catherine Gewertz, and The disenfranchised grief of teachers by Louise Rowling.

I understand that grief is personal and loss is relational. Teachers across the teacher have experienced waves of grief but have had to keep it moving because of society’s obsession with productive and “fixing” things. On top of our grief is the heaviness of criticism, fear, and worry. I see you and you are not alone.

I feel an immense sense of relief knowing that more and more educators are getting vaccinated. At the same time, the rush and urgency to return to “normal,” despite all the loss, weighs on me heavily. Here is a gentle yet firm reminder that grief is natural and you have the right to claim it. It’s okay to slow down.

The Misconception About Grief 

“Every one of us is losing something precious to us. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That's part of what it means to be alive. But inside our heads--at least that's where I imagine it--there's a little room where we store those memories. A room like the stacks in this library. And to understand the workings of our own heart we have to keep on making new reference cards. We have to dust things off every once in a while, let in fresh air, change the water in the flower vases. In other words, you'll live forever in your own private library.” - Haruki Murakami 

A common misconception about grief is that people cannot heal and grieve at the same time. While grief can be persistent and it can resurface, it is false that we cannot experience healing, growth, and joy at the same time. So, how do we create our own bright spots during a time when we feel even more isolated, disconnected, and unseen?

It would be a lie to say that I have not experienced joy during live lessons and virtual community gatherings. However, this could not have happened if I had not adjusted my expectations. In my teaching and learning experience, joy is not something you can plan for and force but it is something you can make space for. In the first couple of months of distance learning, I felt a lot of frustration, anger, and grief because I could not see my students and no matter what I did or said, students would not turn on their cameras or speak in this virtual space. I took this personally, felt inadequate, and consistently felt like a “bad” teacher for the first time in many years. I was committed to shifting my thinking and reprioritize because I knew that I would not be able to show up each day if I didn’t.

So, I committed to shift my thinking, reprioritize, and show myself more compassion and grace. I also stopped comparing my experiences with teaching in the classroom with my experiences with teaching online, and learned to bring bright spots and memories from that “little room” in my head online. I learned to reclaim the joy I find in teaching and do my best every day to make space for joy in the classroom. 

When Do My Students and I Experience Joy Online?

  • When I mix things up and try new learning structures in the online classroom. 
  • When students have a say in how we spend our time.  
  • When students are in the driver’s seat of their socio-emotional and academic learning. 
  • When I lean into the silly moments and mistakes that take place in the virtual classroom.
  • When I invite laughter and shared memories into the space.
  • When students get to spend time with teachers before/after class.

Ideas: class playlist, memory blasts, interactive and engaging check-ins like “Which character best represents your mood?” or “Tell me how you’re feeling only using emojis,” surprise movement or fun breaks embedded into your slides, trying out new online structures, talk time, etc.

Planning Prompts

As we near the end of this school year, I know that planning and doing extra work is the last thing that educators have on their minds. But what if we start planning now to celebrate our students, families, and each other for all the ways we have shown up? Now, students may not remember each lesson they learned this school year but they will remember how their teachers and school community wrapped around them and loved them during a pandemic. 

Here are some ideas to consider as you think about ending the year with joy. 

  1. What are all the ways you and teammates can do to celebrate students and each other?
  2. What is an activity or project that students can engage in in your respective class that is self-directed and self-explorative? 
  3. Is this an activity or project that can be implemented schoolwide?  
  4. What might a virtual gathering look like at your school? 
  5. What might a Week of Joy look like at your school? 
​Terry Kawi

​Terry Kawi ELA Teacher and Instructional Coach Instagram: ms_kawi

Terry Kawi is a middle school ELA teacher and instructional coach. Terry is a 6-8 ELA teacher in the Bay Area and previously taught in Brooklyn, NY. She holds a bachelor of art’s degree in history from UC Davis and master’s degree in teaching secondary English from USC. Terry is entering her eighth year of teaching and continues to prioritize building relationships and empower students through reading and discourse. Outside of teaching, Terry enjoys reading nonfiction, listening to music, and staying active.

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