Unpacking Teacher Grief Before, During, and After Teaching
Teachers spend a lot of time unpacking standards and running their classrooms. But what happens when they need to look inward to unpack emotions like grief? Leaving the classroom is difficult enough, but grieving the parts you loved the most is one of the greatest hurdles a teacher can face during a career transition. In this episode, hosts Ali and JoDee focus in on their own stages of grief.
The Great Teacher Resignation
Glad to be back with episode three today. We had so many takeaways from our interview with Dr. Lindsay Cavanagh last week. We touched a lot on grief. And I want to talk today about what does that look like and sound like for us for both JoDee and I? So I'll start by asking this really important question. What did grief look like to you, JoDee?
Well, I think in past episodes, I've elaborated on how I was feeling. But actually after listening to Dr. Cavanagh's episode, as we're in it, I am, I was literally unpacking my past and unpacking my feelings. You know, as teachers, we do a really good job of learning how to unpack standards, analyzing a standard unpacking it to see what are the core skills that that students need to succeed? And as she's talking, I'm, I'm like, Oh, my gosh, I am unpacking grief, like a standard, what did it look like? What did it feel like? And I think the the main thing that I definitely grieved the most was leaving the students. I still have such a soft part in my heart for every student that I ever taught. And many of them still reach out to me and keep in touch with me. But they really helped me become who I am, because I was able to learn about them and their families and their differences. And I knew that I wouldn't have that kind of perspective, working with adults. So grieving the students was really big. I also grieved teaching their siblings, because teaching different generations, you get to know families really well. And I had a really hard time coping with the fact that I would not get to teach others siblings and extend that relationship. So that was, that was really hard. But I was around 2010 When I made my first move, because you and I have a commonality that we moved around a lot. So in 2010, packing up my classroom, and an elder teacher came in and said, Well, what are you going to do in your new city? And I said, well, what do you mean? Like, I'm just going to be a teacher. That's, that's who I am. And she was like, Are you sure that's what you're gonna do? I was like, yeah, like, I want to be a teacher. I want to, I want to grow old and wear my little knit sweater that has like, apples with a little worm coming out and says, like, you know, like
Number one teacher
Number on teach you know, and I, that's who I wanted to be. I was like, that's, that's my future. And she just looked at me. And she said, Okay, like,
Because she knew, yeah, she meant you were destined for something else besides the classroom, which is an awesome place to be. But she knew.
Yeah, it was like she could see something in me that I could not see. And I was very perplexed by it. But now it all makes sense. That little conversation. That was it was after my third year of teaching. So like, more than 10 years, 15 years later, I'm reflecting on that conversation, which I didn't know the meaning of it until I started unpacking what grief was, where were the flags before that. So yeah, how about you, Ali? What, what did grief feel like for you? What does it look like? Because I know that you felt it on the back end, which you've touched on, but what was it specifically that you were grieving?
So I definitely agree with you about the students. In my, my last year teaching, I became the director of speech and debate at my high school, which I absolutely loved doing. It was for sure the best part of my teaching career. And when I left the classroom, I actually didn't leave Speech and Debate. So I stayed on as the coach, I guess still the director, and I worked with students after school one day a week and I would take them to tournaments throughout the year. And I thought I could still do that and that it would work but it was really so much different once you leave the classroom and you don't have that daily interaction with the students. Things like recruiting new participants becomes really difficult. And I really missed that I really missed having students come into my room during lunch, practice for their tournament, you know, asked me questions about their research, I loved that part of my job. And I felt like I had just started something amazing. And so I was really, really sad to leave that. But I also knew that I had to honor what I was feeling at the time, it was a lot of I was overwhelmed, I had too much on my plate. I think a second part of the grief for me, because of the moves, I oftentimes would have to start at the bottom. So I've taught Spanish one and two, pretty much my whole career. And then I also taught three and four. But I always wanted to teach AP, I had these big dreams of taking students on trips abroad, to Spanish speaking countries. I wanted to be a Fulbright scholar and live abroad for a year and teach or go on a summer project as a teacher. And those are things that I felt like I was getting so close to achieving. So that was really, really hard, because it was a combination of both the connection I had with my students, and also enjoying like teaching their siblings or getting to know their families, and then grieving what I thought was going to be my career for a really long time. You know, we're going to touch on this today because we both have these feelings of how did your behaviors change. So what changed as a result of this grief, I guess, something that we could talk about, because I think all these feelings of leaving things behind, longing for things being sad about them, I was, I was really sad. I really missed my students, I really missed these dreams that I had for myself professionally. And for them.
How did you know that the sadness was grief? How did you come to terms with those two things.
So our listeners don't know this, but I'm a pretty emotional person. And so I have a lot of feelings. I have very deep feelings. So I think when Lindsay last week talked about letting yourself feel those things, I let myself feel them. And I think I'd also dealt with grief in another way I lost my mother, in my fourth year of teaching. And so I dealt with that type of grief. And I think I understood that there was this relationship between feeling a giant loss in your life, whether that's a person or whether that's a thing like your career, because that's so much of who we are, I mean, our day to day life, especially as educators, that's our identity. That's honestly like you spend so much time in the classroom, doing extra things being involved in your community, as an educator, that when you don't have that anymore, it's profound. And I guess I just let myself feel those things. And I cried, and I would talk to my friends about it, I would talk to my spouse about it. It was It probably took me almost two years to really get it all out at some point. I mean, I know it only lasts for seven minutes. We know that now. But like those emotions, but it took me a really really long time. That feels like a long time, to me, at least to to really come to terms with the grief and then to maybe move on to a different stage. And I don't know, what was that like for you?
Well, one I can relate to you being emotional, because I'm emotional person, you know, like, I cry in commercials. I just, I feel it all and if it's has something to do with kids, especially, or families or relationships, I'm a mess. But she said something to me that really resonated was that you have to feel it. And I wasn't doing that I had an entirely different phase. Before I even got to grief. Dr. Cavanaugh touched on career bargaining. And that was kind of where it all started about six, seven years into my career, where I started supplementing my feelings of denial is what I think it was with, going to grad school, taking on extra tasks, taking on extra roles in the school system. And that was a really big mistake. Because when it came to, you know, then six years down the road, I was feeling everything to a point where I felt like I did not know how to regulate my emotions. And I had to I had to let it out at home, because I couldn't go to school and be that person I had to be put together because I had to handle the emotions of my students because you know, you know how it is when you go to school and you you're finding out one of your students parents is divorcing and then you are all of a sudden, that person that they are, you're the shoulder that they're crying on and you, you're strong because you want to give your students the strength to do that. So there are things that happen in students lives where you have to be a solid support system. So I had to do that every day live teaching. And at the end of the day, I was coming home and I was feeling everything and it was affecting my eating habits, it was affecting my sleeping habits to a point where I had to see seek help, because I didn't understand what was happening to my body. So I think I waited too long. So I'm glad to hear that you were kind of just like, upfront, like letting it out. Because I wish I would have done that beforehand.
I mean, I think we just had different journeys. And it's hard to say, I wish I could have done something different because it sounds like you let yourself grieve at at the point when you realized it. And then and then you're I think we are both in very different places right now. And I guess that's also what I want to share today. Do we still feel the same grief that we felt in those moments in our, you know, in our times of serious grief? Like, how do we feel now? Do you still feel grief? Or are you in a different place?
I am definitely in a different place. I remember thinking, How will I not miss, you know, teaching those other generations of kids. But to be honest with you, I I am so thankful for all the families that still keep in touch, because that just fills my bucket every day. You know, last week, we were getting ready for zoom and a former student had texted me to wish my daughter happy birthday. You know, how? How does? How do they remember that. And this is a child I taught probably six years ago. And it's those little things, those little relationships that remind me that when you're a teacher, relationships, and rapport stand above everything, and that those relationships are continuing to happen. And as the years go on, and my students graduate, and they enter college, they're reaching out and saying, look what I'm doing. And that really feels really awesome. And so I don't feel it so much anymore. But I definitely felt it at the beginning. But you know it just like, I want I want people to know like that the feelings when when you address them, you learn to deal with them in a different way. But how about you? What, where are you at at this point?
Yeah, I mean, I think it's really interesting to looking at the fact that you were an elementary school teacher, and I was a high school teacher, because you're still hearing from students who haven't graduated high school yet. And I have former students who have kids now, it's crazy. And I think, I mean, for all of its negatives, social media is kind of awesome. I keep in touch with a lot of my former students that way. And I love to hear from them. I think, you know, as I became a teacher, and I heard from former students, it was so meaningful to know like how they're doing or how my class impacted them, encourage them to maybe study abroad in Spain or to do something else. And so I know what that feels like. So whenever anybody says something about a teacher, if there's a former teacher, I always say reach out to them. Yeah, like, Oh, should I tell them? Yes, you should tell them because we're not teachers? Yeah, it will.
And you were saying like, something you wanted to do was go abroad. But how awesome to see that they're doing that independently, because of how much they love that language that they want to take it to the next level to immerse themselves independently. That's pretty awesome.
Yeah, no, I think it is awesome. I mean, I do miss it a lot. And I guess I've had time to reflect now. And I think the things that I really enjoyed about teaching and about working with young people, I, I've been able to transition into other things in my life. So I do a lot of volunteering in my community, I still get to work with young people. My day job now I'm supporting youth. So that that helps fill my bucket. But I think long term about how I can keep involved with these things that I'm really passionate about. And I would love one day to help support a speech and debate team financially. That's it. Yeah, you know, that they can't afford all the things that you that you need. And so those are goals. For me. I have new goals. As a former educator, and I guess I feel like I'm always a teacher because I get those things. But I guess you just have to, you have to rethink the dreams that you had. And you just they shift and they change and then you're able to still do them. It's just in a different way.
Yeah, you can contribute in different ways to education. So yeah, that's a really big deal. And I guess one thing that I do want to mention that helps me with those former feelings of grief are the continued relationships that I have with teachers. Most of my network are teachers. When I see them posting something celebrating something about an achievement in a classroom, I'm like, yes, I'm so glad that you're in the classroom and that you're teaching those teachers that are still there that inspire you that still just love being with the kids every day, and they're finding new ways to learn. That was, that was a big part of me walking away was knowing that there are educators that I can leave my students in good hands with, you know, like, I know that if I pass you on to the next grade level, you will be okay. Which is something I had to learn because my first year teaching, the first day of summer, I cried in my bed saying to my husband, what are what are they going to do all summer? You know, and he, why are you crying? And I was like, I don't know, I missed them. You know, he's like, it's been 24 hours, why are you missing them? I was like, I don't know. But then you grow. And you realize that as they go, as they grow older, they're educators in their lives, that will make a difference so.
Absolutely. And I also think, now that we're parents, because we didn't start off being parents as teachers, that we have more time now to do education type stuff with our kids, or just to like, not do necessarily do education type stuff. But we have more time now, to spend with our own children, to support them in their schooling to support their class or their teacher or their school. And we approach it from a much different perspective. So when we know that a teacher is sending home something uh for us to sign, like, we approach it with a different lens. And I, I hope that the little things that I can do here and there do help their educational experience and their school. But I guess we're still connected, because we have our own kids now. And we hope that they have great teachers, and we want to support them.
It sounds like that both of us are at a point of acceptance. And that through that journey, grief was one of those stops. Maybe I stayed at that stop for way too long. But you know, it's a it's just, that was my path. And that was your path. And now we're here, accepting where we are.
Yeah. And I think it's important to remember that not everybody goes at the same speed. And it might take some of us longer than others. But that's okay. You have to honor what you're feeling and recognize that there's no right or wrong way to feel something. This is a really big decision if you're transitioning, and honestly, you could end up transitioning back and there could be a lot of feelings there too. So JoDee, you compared unpacking standards to unpacking emotions like grief? What other emotions might someone experience when they're leaving teaching?
Hmm, that's a really good question. Well, you might need to unpack your feeling of relief, or uncertainty. I'm gonna guess guilt. That's a pretty big one. Motivation. I think those are a few. Maybe you're excited and unpack why you're excited. So I think there's quite a bit of feelings that people could unpack.
Absolutely. And we've been hearing from our listeners, that one emotion that they deal with a lot is guilt. So that's going to be a topic for our next episode, we're going to take a better look at guilt and what that emotion is like.