Thursday, March 10, 2016
Sitting down for breakfast, I opened up my computer to discover that my amazing, spirited, energetic, loving, and beautiful cousin Emily had died in a car crash the night before. I called my mother: “Mom, you need to call Graham. I think Emily died. Ally posted her picture on Facebook and said ‘My heart. Is so broken. My beautiful sister. It can’t be real. She can’t be gone.‘ Mom, I’m so sorry.”

I hung up. Shocked and staring at the clock – I could neither move nor sit still. I wanted to be sad, but I had to be at school. How?

Do I call in a sub? Do I go in? How can I teach 30 students when I just want to be with my cousins and my family? I have meetings. I don’t have a sub plan – I can’t think of anything to do. I am so sad. How can she be gone? What is happening? Why is this happening?

I texted both my Principal and my teaching partner:
I went in sad and confused. My Principal was away, so I asked John P, Teacher-in-Charge, to make arrangements for my sub. He is the kindest, most caring man – truly one of the best people I’ve known… I cried, he cared.

I went to Lisa’s room. She hugged me. Held me. Kept me from falling.
I went to my room and got ready for the morning exercises of attendance, announcements, and O Canada.

I was different. The students could sense it. I didn’t feel like telling anyone other than Peggy, John, and Lisa. The kids didn’t know why I was the way I was. I left at 11:45am under a cloud of suspicion and concern… from students and colleagues.

Later, my teaching partner Lisa and I were texting. She said the students were concerned… worried about me. That’s the thing about loving our students… sometimes they love us back.
Lisa and I talked, and I asked her to share the news with the students – as to why I was so different… she did.

Friday, March 11, 2016
I walked in to my room before the start of school, and one of my students left a note on my desk. “I am so sorry for your loss Giesy.” As my homeroom trickled in – some students were sad for me; some were sad because of memories this brought up; some did not know how to approach me; others came up and offered hugs and condolences; and a few were indifferent.

As each of the three grade 8 classes I taught saw me that day, I shared with them the news articles about the accident – and showed photos of Emily. They asked questions, I did my best to answer.

You see – as teachers, we need to be present 100% of the time. I went back to work after taking a half day to be with family because I needed to be there for my class more than I needed to be alone. The Manitoba Teachers’ Society code of professional practice states that our first responsibility is to our students. As much as I needed the time and space to grieve, I couldn’t throw away this opportunity for my students – this was a very painful “teachable moment.” I could share my grief with the students – for them and for me.

I share a lot with my classes. I always have. I think that it’s important for students to know that my room is a safe space for that sort of thing. It’s important to know that if I ask my students to tell me about what they love, what they are truly passionate about – I should darn well tell them my own interests and passions. So why would this experience be any different? My students have experienced loss… or they will. My students bring a bag of emotions and experiences to school that affect their performance – I needed to show them that I do, too. My students have to overcome challenges and adversity in their lives – if just one of eighty-five students learned something from my experience – then sharing with the other eighty-four was worth it.

Over the weeks that followed – we continued to talk about death and dying in the social media age. Emily’s Spotify playlist was the soundtrack for the celebration of her life. There were flowers and visitors – but so many people reached out over Facebook and other social media sites. Every single one of her friends, on the Facebook group dedicated to her memory, posted multiple photos of themselves with Emily. Her sister Norma grieved the loss of communications between she and Ems because many were via snapchat – an app that deletes messages as soon as the recipient views them (and also the source of my much-loathed lecture series “I’m about to Snap” Chats). We talked about the GoFundMe page that was set up in her honour. We talked about the winery that created EMS wine to raise funds for a scholarship in her name. And, a short while ago, Said the Whale released a song dedicated to my cousin.

None of this can be found in the curricular documents set out by the Province. There’s no divisional policy directing the behaviour of teachers who are grieving. There’s no requirement to have caring and loving colleagues and students. Nothing in how I responded would find its way onto a teacher evaluation, nor will anything my students learned work itself onto their report cards. How do the morals, ethics, and laws guiding my professional practice interpret this period of teaching? Am I wrong to have shared my process of grieving with the students? Was I using their time to meet my needs? Ethically – I don’t know if what I did was right. I don’t know how else I could have done it.

I wish I could ask my cousin what she thinks.