Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Other Side of Teaching

I have been relatively lucky when it comes to teaching in that up until this semester none of my students had traumatic events that have been so impactful that I was aware of anything involving their personal lives. I am sure events happened, but I was never pulled into the emotional heartbreak of sharing in those experiences, even from the point of an outside observer.  That changed this week, when I found out that two of my students are separately living through hellish situations, and I am completely helpless to do anything.

I know nothing is expected of me.  I know that my emails letting them know not to worry about school, that I am thinking of them, that I am SO SO SORRY, are appreciated, but are distant.  This is a class of 100 students, and I know few of them well. I know these two names, I know these two faces, but that is all.  I am removed from their crisis.  I am just their professor, an email to check off the To Do List of notifications when the worst happens. 

And yet, I do not feel removed from their heartbreak.  I have thought for the last two days of these students constantly.  I have thought of their families, and I have thought of their grief.  I have thought of myself as a student, living through my own heartbreak, and how helpful the faculty were in holding me up. I do not know how to do that for these two, especially since we were not close before these events. I am communicating with them. I am offering my support. I am giving them the space they need.  I don't think there is much more I can offer, and that alone makes me feel so helpless.

There is another side of teaching outside of the classroom and the grading.  There is the personal connection you make with these students. I  know teachers from kindergarten to high school know it well. I thought I knew it too, although on a different, more removed level. I like my students, I care for the ones I really get to know beyond the confines of the lecture hall. I want to know how they do after they walk out of my class, and I am proud to hear of their success.  But up until this week I had no idea how my heart could break for them. How my heart could break with theirs, even from this distance.

It's a hard week.


  1. Dear Sarah, don't underestimate the power of offering your support; I can attest that support can make a world of difference. Further, feeling helpless does not mean that a situation is hopeless. Do what you know to do, as you have done, and make it known that you will do more if asked. You may not ever be told that your expressions of compassion are helpful, but that doesn't mean that you aren't helping. Don't let your heart harden, so that it can't be hurt. Your pain is what makes you sensitive to the difficulties that others face. You are special! Colleen

  2. The above is excellent advice. Follow it. Your empathy is just another example of what a good heart you have. Your students are lucky to have such a caring professor.