Grief Carousel: An Unexpected Ride

Just two months back, I spent some time answering the question What is your teaching theme song? After much reflection, I announced that my teaching theme song is Best Day of My Life because that’s how I want my students to feel at the end of every day. Connecting that song to my teaching practice has been absolutely magical and transformative. I could feel the song’s energy humming along underneath my classroom decision-making with such clarity. I told my students about this precise new mission statement. I told my staff. I made plans to order stickers for my entry wall: “Enter here for the best day of your life.” My classroom culture was thriving. Times were good–probably some of my best ever.

And, just like that, it was all over.

When I left my classroom the last time, I could actually feel the stillness coming. Friends from other districts had begun receiving news about school closures. My district was going on Spring Break, and I knew that things might change drastically within a week. I paused to take a picture of the room waiting for the kids to come back. I wondered how long it would be.

Empty classroom

This picture still chokes me up. Now we know that it WON’T be. We won’t be back. The last day came and went without any special rites of passage. No certificates. No hugs or high fives. No emotional closure.

We continue the year with home learning, but it’s just not the same. As clearly articulated by Randi Fielding last week, our kids aren’t able to engage in high level thinking right now. Their hierarchy of needs has been shaken and cracked. The kids aren’t the same. And we aren’t the same either.

I think it’s important for educators to admit we are experiencing grief right now.

My grief journey continues to unfold like a carousel. I have been up and down many times as I go around and around. I want to get off, but I can’t. In the distance, I hear music and kids laughing but it feels surreal. Each revolution gives me new perspective, and I’m trying to get my bearings. People around me are going up and down, too. I feel dizzy sometimes. My mind is always spinning. When I sit down to work, I’m so overwhelmed that it’s hard to get anything done. Sometimes, I work all night. I take breaks and order things my family needs. Or I go out in the garage and open Amazon boxes to make sure things I’ve ordered came in. I read the news—which usually makes me read more news. Sometimes I start Googling things. Then, I work. I work a lot because I have a lot to do.

Teaching preschool in a home learning scenario is like starting a brand new job. Nothing about my professional life is the same. It makes me sad and worried and depressed. I grieve the classroom culture that we lost in the blink of an eye. I grieve the need to continue my students’ learning in an online teaching environment after clearly researching and speaking against the online preschool movement. Whenever I finally try to sleep, I can’t because the worry sets in: I lay awake concerned for my family, my students, and their families. I think about all the things I need to do. I can feel the weight of Compassion Fatigue, and I try to resist the urge to shut down and accept the numbness. I talk about taking anxiety medication. I talk about meditation. I call teacher friends to gain perspective. I strategize with my husband about how we can keep two kids under five safely busy while we both work all day. It’s a lot to take in.

Some moments, I am hopeful. Other moments, I feel more hopeless. I know that I’m not alone. And I tell you all of this so that you won’t feel alone either. This type of grief takes on many different forms. However you are feeling is valid and real.

I wanted to find some resources on grief and anxiety for any readers who are experiencing these uncomfortable feelings. According to an article from Kirsten Weir in American Psychological Association, the feelings of grief, loss, and instability are rational emotional responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Weir suggests it can be helpful to clearly name the losses we are experiencing. I think teachers are grieving the lost connections with kids and adults, having a predictable schedule, and feeling good at our craft. We have traded these qualities for a new world of mediocre virtual connections, unpredictable meeting schedules, and feeling under-prepared to help our students or clearly identify their needs. People we normally count on to be calm and provide answers suddenly seem stressed and have few answers. Of course we feel unsettled. Weir suggests that people can gain feelings of resiliency by journaling about prior challenges and strategies that helped overcome them. I’ve also found it helpful to seek regular feedback from families. I regularly reach out to ask: How are my approaches working for your child? Positive feedback rekindles my efficacy and gives me strength to trust my teaching instincts as we move forward.

In another article, Scott Berinato talks about calming the racing mind by ensuring there is a balance between scary mental images and more positive ones. I have found this to be helpful. I’ve been trying to visualize my fears on an actual balance scale to help me pack the positive side adequately. Berinato also suggests calming the mind by alerting oneself to the present by touching five things in the room. To gain additional calm, name the qualities of the items as well. One of the most simple but profound pieces of advice from Berinato is the reminder to be open about how you are feeling. He writes, “When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through.”

So I invite you to name your emotions here in the comments. What losses are you experiencing? How are you coping through them? Together, we will develop new identity as teachers and have the opportunity to model innovation and resiliency for our students. This ride is not over yet.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels


Jess Ledbetter

Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms.

Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

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