Tips for Teachers: Awful Things Will Happen

Remember, you work in a school district. This means that you work with hundreds of other people, each of whom has their own family. There are also the students. Probably thousands of them. Very early on in your career you are going to need to realize that your working life will inevitably be filled with all sorts of really horrible tragedies. People that you know will die in awful ways. Students will have to deal with situations beyond your belief or understanding. There will almost always be someone coping with something terrible. In my time in my district, I have been party to or made aware of events that are among the most tragic things that I have ever seen. Things that I could not have conceived of until they happened. Students and co-workers killed in their prime through no fault of their own. Children who go out one night and never come home. Colleagues who start the year and do not finish it. I would imagine that out of the forty weeks of my school year, at least 20 of them involve an e-mail from the central office secretary who is in charge of such notifications (the "angel of death") that someone has died. Usually, it is a family member of a colleague. Sometimes the connection is much more direct. Most times the affected individual is in another school or building, but as I remain in the district longer and get myself into more and more of the workings of it, increasingly I have a face to put with the name.

Especially awful is when a student unexpectedly dies or is horribly injured. In five years, we have had two currently attending students pass away quite suddenly. One died in the building, immediately after leaving the class of a close friend. We have had a handful of other recent graduates die just as unexpectedly. As I write this, one is in a seemingly persistent vegetative state. It is not an easy thing to deal with, even if you only have an ancillary relationship to the student in question. Being in a school on the day following a student's death is like being in a giant funeral home. It is not a highlight of one's career.

Just as difficult, if not more so, is when something awful happens to a faculty member. Depending on the situation, students may very well not feel as affected as the staff does (they may not even know about the thing that has occurred). These days can be quite trying, especially if a teacher has to try to keep up appearances that all is well when it really is not. I can remember flying off the handle on one such day because a student had the temerity to walk by my hall duty station wearing a hat and didn't take it off instantly upon request. Any other day, I wouldn't particularly have cared one way or the other.

Sometimes terrible things will be exacerbated by the bureaucracy of the district. I have had colleagues who have been harassed about taking days off to be with dying parents. Several have been wrongly informed that they were taking too much time off for chemotherapy. I wouldn't believe these things if I hadn't seen them first hand.

If you love the work, teaching is a wonderful job. But as wonderful as it is, there is no immunity from the cruel whims of existence because you work in education. And while there are many more bright spots in my career than these isolated, dark days, that does not make these moments any less real or any less painful. I know that my experiences are not isolated to me and my district. There is plenty of sadness to be had by all of us.