Navigating Loss as a New Teacher

Erin HealeyBlog, Connect Better, Manage Better, Self Care Better


  • Talking about loss is a difficult topic to discuss but it’s important in order to share coping strategies.
  • When there is a loss in the community, throw out the lesson plan, provide opportunities for student choice, and be open and authentic.
  • When dealing with personal loss, take care of yourself first and don’t pour yourself into work, lean on your support network, and plan project-based instruction to limit direct instruction.

This is not an easy post to write, but I believe it is an important message to share. New teachers are in a transitional point in life when they enter the classroom; not only are they navigating the education space as a professional for the first time, they are also figuring out how to “adult” with the added stress of modeling that journey for their students. They are trying to make the best possible decisions personally, professionally, mentally, financially… with an audience of eager young faces watching their every reaction. 

One of the hardest things I have ever had to do is navigate loss—both in my personal life and in my school community—in front of students. It is something that no one can truly prepare you for, and it is happening more frequently now, as we endure the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope this post helps provide you with some support as you find a way to cope with grief in a way that helps you, and your students, grow stronger.

In your classroom, you need to model authentic strength and grace for the students in front of you, no matter how hard that seems in the moment. Click To Tweet

Navigating Loss: Community Loss

Reflecting on my (albeit brief) tenure in education thus far, there has not been one year where my school community hasn’t tragically lost a member of our student body. No child should pass away so young, and no child should have to endure the loss of a friend, but sadly that is a reality across the country. The entire school community needs to come together during these times, but responses can be disjointed by grief. In your classroom, you need to model authentic strength and grace for the students in front of you, no matter how hard that seems in the moment.

Throw out your lesson plan.

It may be tempting to try to keep your class structured and focused for normalcy, but that will just add pressure on your students. Structure is good! But flexibility is better. Instead of sticking to the lesson plan, incorporate an activity that reaffirms skills that students have practiced already. This can provide additional opportunities for mastery for some students who may not be as personally affected by the tragedy, while relieving the stress and confusion that acquiring new skills might have on students who are severely suffering. 

Provide opportunities for student choice.

Not all students (or teachers) react the same way to tragedy or grief. Some students will need space to talk to specialists, or to each other. Some will need to focus on something totally different, and some will need extra time. Utilize stations in your classroom, and allow students to self-select the option that will best serve their needs (and change mid-class if necessary). Running a flexible review lesson will allow those students who need to leave the classroom or reflect with their friends the ability to not miss out on any new work, as well as the confidence they will need to eventually complete the work independently at a later date. 

Be open and authentic.

Don’t be afraid to acknowledge the incredibly difficult moment your students are in, but remind them that this moment too will pass and what they each make of this time will ultimately make them stronger. Take a knee next to a student who is struggling, and be open to really listen to their thoughts and feelings. Connect with them at a level that you feel comfortable. Have an extra box of tissues available. Dim the lights in your classroom so student reactions don’t stand out to their peers. Play some quiet music in the background so quiet conversations can remain private. You can’t pour from an empty cup, so make sure as you are engaging in this work you are taking a moment to check on yourself, too.

Navigating Loss: Personal Loss

Life is going to throw every challenge possible at you in your career. Grief is hard enough to cope with, without an audience. In your darkest moments, I hope these strategies give you space for grace and healing. 

You may want to pour yourself into your work, but that is going to have serious negative effects in both the short term and the long term. You can’t give your all to your students if there is nothing to give, and your class will suffer from your inability to be your best around them. Any small challenge that arises will seem insurmountable, and you’ll burn out. Odds are, there are a lot of people outside of your classroom that are relying on you during this challenging time, and if you’re burnt out at work you won’t be able to be there for them either. 

Long term, you are just compartmentalizing your grief. It is going to come out, most likely in your personal and your professional life, if you repress it long enough. The burnout will be harder since it will have been coming on for longer, and the impact on those you care about (in your personal life and in your work) will be harder.

[scroll down to keep reading]

To avoid this, take time for yourself first.

This is what emergency sub plans are for. Your colleagues and team teachers will take care of your classes, and yes, you have some days off to use. Put an away message on your email, and don’t prep or grade. Just focus on the ones you love, and find the support you need during your moment of tragedy. 

When you do return, your strength and authenticity will be an incredible model for your students in overcoming loss and moving forward. Your world has been shaken, and you probably are incredibly uncertain about where to start again. Opening up to your support network will invite others to share their advice with you, and make you a visible mentor to those who have similar challenges but are too afraid to reach out to anyone. You definitely have a student in your class, or a colleague next door, who has been through something similar; talking about it will help you, and them. 

I recommend also easing back into teaching your content. Project-based lessons are great for these times; set your students up to work towards a goal independently, limiting the amount of direct instruction you will need. Allow them to learn through experiences, or from each other, until you feel strong enough to resume your usual teaching practice. 

I hope that you never need to use this resource, but if you do, I hope it provides you with some strategies to grow through the worst moments in your career. You are stronger than you realize—that’s what makes you a great teacher! If anyone can navigate this time with grace and flexibility, it is you. 

About Erin Healey

Erin is an English teacher at Chariho High School, in Rhode Island. She is the founder of the Young Educators Society of Rhode Island (@yesriorg), a Highlander Institute Fuse Fellow, current Master’s student studying Education Technology at the University of Connecticut, and can always be found drinking coffee (preferably a PSL)!