As educators, we face several obstacles every day. Social-emotional learning is one challenge we face on a daily basis with our colleagues, students, and administration. At some point during the day, educators must assist students with managing emotions and giving them guidance in setting positive goals. As a special education teacher in Reno, Nevada, little did I know that a tragic event would change my life forever on January 23rd, 2015. This tragic event would put my own social-emotional state through a true test as a person and an educator.
As a special education teacher, I managed a caseload of 23 students for the 2014-15 school year. I taught resource English as well as a study skills support class for this particular school year. One of the duties of our job description is to hold annual IEP’s (Individualized Education Plans) for all of the students on our caseload at least once a year. On the afternoon of 1/23/15, I had scheduled an IEP for one student that was near and dear to me. He had just turned 18 and was a student who had an instant impact on me from the first day I met him.
He had a heart of gold. I remember in my study skills class, this young man was always pulling pranks on the class; calling in a pizza order to the main office without my permission and telling me my shirt was on backwards when in fact it wasn’t. This young man had the greatest sense of humor.
The IEP meeting went smoothly. Goals were discussed, his future was talked about, and the meeting ended on a positive note. Sometime around 8:30-9:00 that evening on January 23, 2015, less than 5 hours after the IEP meeting ended, this young man committed suicide at home. Little did I know how much this tragedy would challenge my own social and emotional mindset and test it to the extreme.
I woke up on the morning of 1/24/15 at 5:30 AM to 39 texts and my phone vibrating nonstop. My first thought was “who on earth is texting me at 5:30 in the morning?” When I saw the number of texts, I immediately woke up and started scrolling through the messages. Some of my teacher friends had texted me saying there was a suicide that had taken place at the high school where I teach. Once I confirmed the name of the student through the daughter of one of my teacher friends, I was dumbfounded when she gave me the name of the young man I just had the IEP for the prior night. I thought it had to be a sick joke. My first thought was that this had to be a mistake. I couldn’t believe it was real. There was just no way this was my young man I had just held the IEP for! I went on the computer, typed in the young man’s name, and realized that it was all over social media. After receiving an e-mail from the dean of students about the rumors, reality still hadn’t set in at that time. The principal of my high school called me around 10:30 AM and told me the news. We had a meeting scheduled for 7:15 that following Monday morning to come up with an action plan on how to handle this. At this time, I was so numb, emotionless and in almost a catatonic-like state mentally.
Once I realized the suicide had actually happened, my own social-emotional state on how to handle this devastation for myself hadn’t kicked in yet. The first emotion that kicked in was my teacher mode. I made a few calls from home to a few parents of some students I was concerned about to have the parents break the news to their children. My concern as an educator was that I wouldn’t be able to handle my students’ emotional state on Monday morning if their parents hadn’t talked with them ahead of time about suicide.
As I stepped into that faculty meeting that Monday morning at 7:15, I felt like all eyes were on me because several of the teachers knew we had just had this young man’s IEP on Friday. I stood by the door to hear what the principal had to say and immediately made sure I was the first one out the door because I had no idea how to react.
The real test for myself as a person came after the meeting. Administration kept on coming into my classroom to check on me, and I ignored them. I wanted to avoid the reality of what happened. I figured avoiding it was the best way to handle it at the time. I started teaching my students in rapid fire mode to avoid having to deal with the reality of the tragedy that it was in fact real. Little did I realize what a mistake that was.
Later that afternoon, the principal finally got me to open up on how I was feeling to her and that is when the emotions really came out. After the emotions came out, that is when I knew that at some point I had to allow myself to begin to heal as a person and as an educator. This would allow myself to grieve properly and to help my students through this trauma as well.
The whole social-emotional learning experience I got out of this tragedy is that every person will grieve at their own time and pace, and that is okay. As a special education teacher and a person, by nature, I am not one to openly show my emotions. However, if I hadn’t taken the steps and accepted the support offered to me, I wouldn’t have been able to help my students through their social-emotional aspects of this tragedy. Even though it's been 17 months since this tragedy happened, there are still days that are rough. I find a way to get through the day.
One thing I learned as a special education teacher is that I am fortunate to teach in the high school I do. We have over 100 teachers at the high school where I teach in Reno, Nevada, and I was the most impacted. The principal, dean of students, and one of the vice principals (who was also my evaluator) gave me all the support I needed to handle this. I won't say it gets easier. I have just come to accept that this trauma will always be a part of my life and I have to learn to work with the emotions that will always come with it.
Through this experience, I have learned that as a person and educator, I am not invincible. I make mistakes and now I admit them. Before this experience, I would question whose fault my mistakes were. Now I seek advice on how to fix the mistake and grow stronger from them. As an educator, it is crucial that I seize every opportunity possible to find a way to grow as a teacher and person.
Before this tragedy, I would always find the negatives in many given situations. Now if a negative situation occurs, I find a way to turn it into a positive. I make sure all of my students walk out of my classroom knowing I have their best interests at heart and that they are loved and cared about. I now make sure I have high expectations for my students and want them to realize they can achieve their goals, despite being on an IEP.
If there is any advice in regards to social and emotional learning that I can pass on to any educator in my lessons learned from this tragedy, it is that you are not invincible and have to be open to learning from anything thrown your way. I took so much for granted before this tragedy shook up my life. My principal, assistant principal, and dean of students were monumental in helping me take steps forward from this tragedy. As a result of this, I have now established a memorial scholarship in memory of this young man that reflects the kindness that shone from him on a daily basis.
I have now learned to embrace every aspect of education and always put a positive spin on it. This has helped me really open my eyes to the fact that life can change in the blink of an eye and a trauma changes you forever as a person and teacher. The support given to me by my principal, vice principal, and dean of students is something that changed my life forever. When it comes to a suicide of any student, as educators we will always have several questions on why the person made the decision they did. I have learned that in the case of my student, these questions will forever remain unanswered. Emotionally, I am slowly starting to realize this. I realized from this student that as teachers, we aren't the only ones who teach our students; our students sometimes teach us. It has also made me realize I am very lucky I teach at McQueen High School in Reno, Nevada. The emotional support given to me during this trauma at McQueen High School makes me appreciate my role as a special education teacher more than ever.
Debbie Earl is a special education teacher at McQueen High School in Reno, Nevada with 12 years of experience. She is the parent of 13 year old boy/girl twins: Marissa and Ethan (whom have special needs). She has been married to her husband Kevin for 15 years and is very passionate about her family and all avenues of education.