Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Dealing with Loss of a Student

One of the student's paintings
Losing a student isn't something I ever considered before, and I didn't realize how frequently it happens. My school lost a student in late February and it impacted our whole school community. I was heartbroken for the student's family as well as the other students in school, especially her two best friends. I didn't plan to write about this, but I keep seeing posts on Facebook from art teachers in a similar boat wanting to know what they should do and how to help.
I hope you are never in a position to need this advice, but if you find yourself dealing with loss at school, I hope this is helpful.

Instagram post inviting students to come for support.
The accident happened on a Friday as she was leaving school, so we had the weekend and an in-service day the following Monday. Over the weekend a local youth group planned a time for students that knew her to come be together, talk, cry, whatever they needed to do. It was well attended and seemed to be helpful to a lot of the students. There was a meeting for all staff before our regularly scheduled professional development where we talked about practical stuff like the plans for how to handle things the following morning, schedule of the services, the district's tough position, and then had several counselors from area schools there to talk us through what to do and not to do.

Here are the most important things stressed to us

  • Keep things as normal as possible because everyone handles things differently and many need the sense of normalcy.
  • Let students know they can talk to you, but try not to dwell on it too much (tricky balance.)
We were all given a statement to read to our students first hour so that they all had the same information, even though they had all heard about the wreck. The counselors were on hand all day to talk to any students or staff in need of support. Before school started that day our FCA had organized a prayer circle around the flag pole where anyone could speak and a local store donated balloons that were released. The students also encouraged everyone to wear Batman shirts (her favorite) and write her initials on their hands. There were actually a couple of students writing her initials through the end of the school year.

One thing that I found myself doing more than expected was explaining the position of the school district and administration. The district has a policy of no memorials and many students took this very personally thinking they didn't care. I had to explain again and again that the administration was probably in a tough spot wanting to be supportive and absolutely caring, but having to enforce the policy.

There are several special considerations for losing a student out of an art class.

  1. What to do with finished artwork... The student's family visited school the Monday after the wreck. She had seen a photo I put on Instagram (it felt wrong to not acknowledge what had happened) and was anxious to get her daughter's work. I gave her what I had and said that I would send the rest with her best friend when I got one piece back from a show and found the others in my folders.
  2. What to do with unfinished artwork... If the student has friends in art class and the family/friends are ok with it, let them complete the work.
  3. What to do with the empty seat... I actually considered rearranging tables but decided to keep it normal. I was dreading having the empty seat across from her best friend in my 3rd hour class, but another friend scooted over into it. They wanted to be close together and I think they didn't want the empty seat either.
  4. How to handle requests for memorial artwork... On the first day back, if a student asked to do something else (journal, draw, etc.), I let them. I had a couple of students who wanted to take on bigger projects and I just encouraged them to wrap up their assignments first with the promise that they could make something special when they were finished. 
  5. To "art therapy" or not? Be careful with trying art therapy type activities. First of all, most art educators are not actually trained in it. Second, not all students would want to participate and you don't want to accidentally make the students who didn't know know or weren't close to the deceased feel guilty for not feeling guilty. Try to keep things "normal".
  6. Talking... most art teachers are ok with students talking as long as they get their work done on normal days. I had already decided that if students needed to talk to me or each other, they would be allowed to do so in my room. I did make sure to monitor the conversations so that I could be ready with the information given me by the school, and suggest visiting with a counselor if a student seemed to be having a really hard time.

There's no perfect way to handle the loss of a student, especially when it happened in such an unexpected accident. Do your best to stick with the advice given you by your school and the supports put in place, but also trust your gut. It does get easier over time. The first week back was the hardest but everyone really pulled together and was very supportive. You don't ever forget. Each time I would find something like a piece of her artwork I missed or see her in the background of a photo I took earlier in the year, it was like getting punched in the gut, but you just figure out how to stay strong for the students.

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