When We Lose a Colleague

While this initially may seem like a depressing  topic to write about heading into a new school year, I actually think it is an important one to think about as we head back to school. 

Of course, it is sad and difficult when anyone dies.  Even if we did not know someone personally, as humans we care about each other. We feel sad when someone we know tells us about a family member or a  friend’s friend or someone we didn’t even know who has passed away. We know that people who love and know that person will feel a void in their lives, and we know that it means heartache for them, that their lives have been changed forever.

It wasn’t until the end of my  19th year of teaching that I experienced the loss of a colleague. Before that, I had lost retired colleagues, colleagues in other schools in the district, and far-too-many students and former students, but I had not lost someone who was currently teaching in my school. Then, between 2014 and 2016, we lost three full-time faculty members who were actively teaching. Three.  Even though I had  experienced many losses before both in my professional and personal life, the loss of my  colleagues impacted me differently.

Of course, some colleagues we interact with very frequently and others not as much. Maybe we are in the same department or maybe we only see each other at faculty meetings or during  professional development. Maybe we cross paths because of a shared duty or prep period, or maybe we see each other occasionally while checking our mailboxes. Maybe we serve on a committee and engage in discussions on topics about which we agree to disagree.  My point is that there are some colleagues that we are closer to than others. Needless to say, the closer we are to a colleague, the more difficult the loss when they pass away.

And, again, while this is true for any loss, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on why the loss of a colleague, at least for me, is different…. Here is what I have realized……

  • As we gather as a school community when we lose a colleague, we share specific memories of the colleague but we reminisce and reflect on what they valued as a teacher, what was important to them, how they contributed to the school as a whole. We remember points they made at a faculty meeting and conversations we had with them in the hallway about what really matters in teaching. 
  • We remember shared experiences. We go through a lot as a school community and, even though we might try to convey that to our close family and friends, it’s not easy to do. People who work with you day in and day out understand us in a way that others might not. Whether you agree about everything or not, you have shared experiences that create a special bond that you do not have with others. 
  • We realize that, regardless of subject matter or approach to teaching, staff, faculty, and administrators  are all trying to do the same thing- make a difference in the lives of students. We might disagree about policies, but, at the end of the day, we believe fervently (hopefully) in what we are doing. We are trying to serve our students as  best as we can. When we lose someone working toward the same goal, we know that we have lost something important, someone who is trying “to make the world a better place,” so to speak. 
  • We are all different- thank goodness. We all have different ways to interact with students. Our students need each and every one of us to be who we are because they all have different needs. Just because we hire someone to fill the now-vacant position when a colleague dies obviously  doesn’t mean they can be replaced. 
  • We see our students grieve when a colleague dies, and that is hard to watch.  Many students have never experienced the death of someone close to them and are often experiencing loss for the first time.
    • It is strange for students to lose their mentor,  someone who is reliable, there for them…someone who touched their lives academically…. Perhaps they were the first teacher who could take a complicated subject and explain it in a way that made sense…..
    • It is strange for students to lose someone who maybe  served as a coach or advisor or who helped them through a challenging time in their lives or  helped them gain earned confidence that they previously lacked. 
    • It is strange for students to lose someone who has become a trusted friend on many levels (and it is often through the death that they come to this realization). 
    • When we see students respond to a colleague’s death, sometimes we only then realize the impact that we have on our students.  
  • It reminds us of our own mortality.
    • While society generally shys away from conversations about death, I think it is important to think about our own mortality because it  helps give perspective and meaning to our lives. It causes us to stop and think about what really matters to us personally and professionally.  
  • It reminds us that our job goes far beyond the content we teach in our classes every day. We teach students through the way we treat one another, the way we treat them, the way we respond to challenges….

So, with so many other topics that are worthy of a blog post at this time of year – some that might be more obviously uplifting- , why this topic now??

  • You and your colleagues have more in common than you realize.   As we start a new year and welcome new colleagues and see familiar ones, remember that you all have something in common– your commitment to make a positive impact in students’ lives. 
  • No matter how frequently you  interact with your colleagues or how you view different school topics, you are all on the same team. Remember, you have a lot of people nearby who are there to support you in different ways. Don’t be afraid to reach out, whether you are a new teacher or a veteran teacher. 
  • Think about who you are or want to be as a teacher. How do you want to be remembered? Whether you are just starting out or nearing the end of your career, what impact do you want to make on students and your school community? Answer that question through your decisions and actions. 
  • If you have lost colleagues, honor them through your teaching. Keep their spirit, their mission alive…Honor their memory with your students by sharing a brief, relevant story  about your colleague from time to time….. or incorporate one of their approaches or something they believed into your teaching…Maybe they had a favorite quote or motto by which they lived…. Find a place- obvious or subtle- in your classroom to write those words…Even if the students never know why they are there, YOU will  and those words might inspire you on the days you need them the most…..

Thank you for reading this blog post. I know thinking about loss is painful and brings up our own personal experience with it. However, it is important to think about- not dwell on- our losses so we can honor those who are no longer with us….

Today I am remembering my colleagues Diane Blessing, who passed away in January 2014,   Jeremy Eschelbacher, who passed away in August 2015, and  Christopher Underwood , who passed away in August 2016. 

Food For Thought: 

  • Have you experienced loss in your school community?
  • What did you find that was helpful in how you responded to the loss?
  • How did the loss of your colleague impact you?
  • How do you honor the memory of your colleagues?

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