Cherokee High School English teacher Kathy Hays said she can almost feel the sorrow of her students who have experienced the death of a close family member or friend.
Perhaps it's a part of being sensitive to her students or maybe it's the result of a long career — more than 35 years — of teaching. More likely, it's the combination of the two.
But one thing is for sure, she said. "If a teacher teaches long enough, he or she will surely have to deal with a grieving student."
A recently released survey by the American Federation of Teachers found that 69 percent of the organization's union members nationwide reported having at least one student in their class in the past year who had experienced the death of a close family member or friend.
Just 7 percent, however, reported receiving any formal training on the topic of childhood bereavement.
"The fact is our society is uncomfortable with death and grief, particularly that of a child," said Maeve Ward, vice president of Hart Research Associates, which conducted the study. "Kids are quick to pick up on that. So, they suffer in silence, but that creates emotional difficulties."
Based on teacher responses to the survey, students who experience the death of a parent or guardian are more likely to face emotional challenges, are prone to anxiety or loneliness, often need more support in school and lack a sufficient support network to deal with their grief. They also tend to have more difficulty concentrating in class, higher absentee rates and experience a decrease in the quality of their schoolwork and frequency of completing homework.
Lauderdale County schools Superintendent Jennifer Gray said that while the district doesn't offer formal training to teachers in dealing with grieving children, "teachers are great to let the students take the lead in allowing them to express their feelings of grief and sadness."
Gray said she expects the issue of teachers dealing with student grief to be addressed in the state superintendent's long-range plan for Alabama schools.
Alabama Superintendent Tommy Bice has named it Plan 2020, his long-term vision for what he expects to be done, educationally, by the year 2020.
"There's a revamping of the guidance counselor's planning, letting them get back to being counselors, with more emphasis on what services they're trained to provide students," Gray said. "Our teachers are in tune with bereaved students and often set up counseling appointments for those students with the school guidance counselor."
One in seven Americans report losing a parent or sibling by age 20, a major factor in why the American Federation of Teachers is embarking on an awareness/training campaign surrounding the issue of childhood grief.
Pilot training presentations for teachers have been held recently in California, Florida and next, New York. Three more programs are yet to be named.
Hays said she would welcome such training.
She holds a degree in sociology as well as in education and said coursework in sociology and psychology has taught her that in the case of dealing with grieving students, it's best to proceed with caution and be sensitive to their needs.
"At one time the guidance counselor was whom these students could turn and they were the shoulder for these kids," Hays said. "Then, some districts had psychologists, but through the years those positions have been absorbed and it's the teacher who is on the front lines of helping these students.
"I'm always careful in the way I present information in a class where a student is grieving, sure not to single that person out. With the amount of loss people are experiencing these days, teachers definitely need training. We have to make these kids comfortable at school because if they're not at ease, they can't learn."
Hays hopes to see in the near future at least as much emphasis placed on helping grieving children as districts place on student bullying and harassment.
"It just makes sense, given the fact that all teachers are going to have to deal with those dynamics at some point," she said.
Kay Parker is a licensed professional counselor and the director of the Healing Place, a center that offers grief support for children and teens. She said it's appropriate for teachers to know some strategies to make it easier on those children in the classroom who are grieving.
"Teachers totally have the power to comfort a child," she said. "If the school is interested in giving their teachers information to help students suffering bereavement, they can schedule an in-service session with trained grief counselors who can empower those teachers. It would be very doable and a good thing."
The Healing Place counsels 300 bereaved school children in Franklin, Colbert and Lauderdale counties. The students have monthly sessions.
Such a high number of students, Parker said, is proof that there's a need for support systems at school.
"Local schools are really good to seek this information, and they want to help these children," Parker said. "By being equipped to deal with the issue of student bereavement, (teachers) aren't caught off guard when they have those children in their classes."
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