Friday, February 17, 2012

Let's Celebrate!

Two events this past week inspired me to do some thinking. The first was the outstanding recognition bestowed upon Mrs. Witmer; being the recipient of the Richard Snook Outstanding Band Director Award by the NYS Band Directors Association. The second was the win for our girls’ varsity hockey team, which declared them the NYS champions. My mind was ecstatic and overjoyed, but a question developed: Do we celebrate our successes enough? I’m not referring to the grand events, such as the “big” win or award as celebrations are natural in these cases. Rather, I’m speaking of the small, incremental steps we take while on the journey of success. Taking nothing away from the coach, team, or director, but there were many successes leading to these recognitions.

In the classroom, you enjoy incremental successes with each of your students. No matter how small, provide the positive reinforcement to further motivate our students for the next step on their path. Encourage. Offer positive feedback (not simple praise). Cheer. Laugh. Press for continued growth. And, celebrate each success.

Congratulations to Mrs. Witmer, Mr. Stark, and our team. Let’s bring their lesson of success into our classrooms.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Grieving Process of the Student's Death

Today’s Focus is one of reflection. AAK will never forget the unthinkable tragedy which befell one of our students this past fall. During our time of immense suffering, 6th grade teacher Helen Mace maintained a diary of her thoughts, feelings, and actions. As she read through her reflections, it occurred to her that her diary might help other teachers who find themselves in the dark despair of grief. She completed some editing and fashioned it into a step-by-step process for dealing with a tragedy. She then decided to send her message to the NYSMSA journal, In Transition, for inclusion in their publication. They, too, felt that her words could help others and she will be published in the coming edition. I share this with you as a reminder of what we went through, of the necessity of continued vigilance of our students’ social-emotional needs, and for our appreciation of Helen’s bravery. Congratulations Helen. Let’s remember to take care of our students, each other, and ourselves.

I hope you never have to use what I am going to share with you. I don’t understand young death and I never will. Nobody should have to bury their young!

The news comes, a child is in the hospital, it doesn’t look good. The next phone call comes and tells you your student has died. The death may come in the form of an accident, illness, suicide, or murder. You are filled with disbelief, shock, anguish, and anger. Your heart is broken and torn to shreds. However, you are the teacher and you have a classroom filled with students that are looking to you for guidance. You must go on, you are their rock, you have to go to school. You are their stability, they don’t know what to expect, how to behave or what to feel. Your students are confused, hurt, and angry.

Unfortunately, our school district has experienced student death numerous times. With our last student death, our administrator quickly held a faculty meeting early in the morning and gave everyone the grave news. Hospice, teachers, guidance counselors, support staff, and even Choco, our therapy dog, were made available to help the students ease their pain. Some students found out about their classmate’s death when they walked through the school doors that morning and saw their peers crying. They were in disbelief, shock, denial, and were angry. After announcements, we held a grade level meeting in a central location and informed our students what we knew; their classmate had died last night. We stated the facts and only the facts. We also asked the students to only repeat the facts, not to speculate or share stories that other people had told them. We emphasized empathy!

Hospice took over our library and set up healing centers. Support staff, teachers, and counselors worked with the students and helped them create worry stones, sympathy cards, fit balls, scratch art, and more. Each teacher pulled out his/her bags of tricks and set up stations in individual homerooms. One teacher set up math stations, one got out art supplies, one held silent reading, and another one set up journal writing. Special area teachers offered to take extra students during physical education, music, and art classes. Everyone pitched in to help our students process their grief.

Throughout the day, we let the students sign out and attend the stations that best suited their needs. Student accountability was extremely important at this point. Sign out lists were posted in each homeroom so we could quickly tell the office where a child was located in case a family member came to pick them up and bring them home. Anytime we left the room for a walk, we called the office to tell them where we were going and how long we would be gone. Friends gathered together and supported one another. They hugged, cried, hugged, cried, and continued to hug and cry all day. We had students in our rooms during planning periods and we ate lunch together. Some teachers ate in small groups in the classroom, whereas, others ate in the cafeteria with the students. We walked a lot that first day. We went on an entire grade level walk to the track and let the students run. We went on small group walks. We stomped in the classroom. We stomped outside. The anger still didn’t go away.

The deceased child’s locker was covered with a large sheet of paper. Students and teachers wrote messages and hung pictures on the locker. Clay figures and cards were placed at the base of the locker. A candle, a basket to hold messages, and other treasures were placed on the deceased student’s desk. At the end of the week, the mementos were replaced with an angel plant and a photograph of the student. The child’s desk was placed in a special section of the classroom.

Day two came and everyone was still in disbelief. A candle light vigil had been held the night before so everyone was exhausted. The day was calm and we tried to return to normalcy. Grief therapy continued with a variety of activities. We also started to get back into our structured routine. The nurses office was utilized as a guidance station. Students that needed counseling went there first and then were sent to various counselors who were stationed in the building. Our school nurse is amazing!

At the end of day two we had a faculty meeting, the calling hours and funeral were announced. We debriefed and had a chance to talk. Our principal announced we would meet in the cafeteria and walk down to the wake as a large community family. He sent information home and requested to have family members meet their child/children in the cafeteria and we would walk down to the funeral home together.

When we returned to our homerooms, colleagues were at our doors. They were amazing, took control and came up with a game plan. They volunteered to cover our rooms so our team of teachers could attend the funeral services. We are so fortunate to work with such a caring staff!

Day three was tough. The students arrived anxious; I was not prepared for this. Their anxiety took me by surprise. Then I realized this was the first time a lot of them were visiting a funeral home and/or attending a wake. Some students were just hearing about the calling hours and the funeral. We let them call their families to make arrangements to attend the wake with a family member. Once again we held a team meeting in a central location and went over our day. The students relaxed a little when they heard we would be walking down to the wake together.

Various lessons were taught throughout the day to help the students with their grieving process. One colleague volunteered to give a lesson on empathy. He taught the students how to listen, gave them encouragement, had them think about empathy, positive energy, and enthusiasm. His presentation was amazing! The students then created wonderful empathy poems which were displayed in the hallway.

At the end of the day, we met in the cafeteria where families were waiting for their child/children. Our principal opened with caring words and then an expert from Hospice explained what a wake was. She explained the layout of the funeral home, the wake process and what to say to the family. It eased the students’ minds knowing what to expect. We then left the cafeteria as a large community family and walked to the wake. Parents, children, and staff walked together supporting one another.

The day of the funeral arrived and everyone, again, was exhausted. During first period, we went over the day’s schedule. For the students that couldn’t attend the funeral, we had a closure activity planned at school. We had the students think of a positive goodbye phrase to write down on a small slip of paper. The students then put that piece of paper into a helium balloon. Later that day, students walked to the football field and released the balloons at the same time the funeral was being held. This gave the students who could not attend the funeral services closure and allowed them to be part of the goodbye process. After they released the balloons they went inside for a quiet period. Either they read or wrote in their journals.

Our school is an amazing district to work in. The support our colleagues gave each other in the time of need was phenomenal. I am very fortunate to be able to work at such a caring district. I appreciate everything everyone did to help our team out during this horrendous time.

Once again, I hope you never have to use these words of advice.