What It's Like Teaching From Inside a Suicide Epidemic

If you’ve read past the title you already know what this post is about. If you’re still reading, it’s because you want to learn more, or because you already know and hope to find empathy. This post can do both, but be warned: I am neither a psychologist nor a counselor, and I have no solutions. I am merely an educator who has experienced teaching in crisis, too often, and the words have finally boiled over into the post you see on your screen. In the tight-knit reservation community where I live and teach, we have seen 20 suicides in the past year. This number includes former students, current students and siblings and children and parents of students. It includes the young man who stabbed himself in the heart with a knife. It includes the grandpa who couldn’t manage without his medication and it includes an eighth-grader. This number does not include the unsuccessful attempts I know about, or the students who silently disappear in the middle of the year and return with a 504 Individualized Education Plan which is never fully explained. It doesn’t include the star high school student who shot himself or the young woman who hanged herself when she was seven months pregnant, during my first five years of teaching. Why must I share these horrific and inexpressibly sad details? Because that is how I get through it. I count them. I think about them. I remember them. I find pictures of the people, and things they wrote if they were in my class. I recall funny moments and sad moments. I think about their families who have endured. The details are what we live with when we are left behind.

What actually transpires when the community experiences a tragic loss?

Sometimes I receive a text message early in the morning. Sometimes I hear about it late at night. Sometimes I see something cryptic on Facebook and hear the complete story later. Sometimes I receive no warning before the principal enters my classroom to make the announcement, and then I am left alone to console students and decide whether to keep on with my lesson. There’s just no pattern. Except that it keeps happening. I have no solutions. I do know that my colleagues and I have experienced compassion fatigue, the exhaustion caregivers feel after helping others in trauma. I know that in the face of absolute despair teachers are sometimes a bulwark for students in crisis. When teachers are left to pick up pieces after the worst possible outcome, we must persist so we can be present for everyone else—and this demands toughness and resilience. For some of us, this upstream swim is the most onerous part of our role. It drains us and leaves us open to our own kind of despair. Yet we come back to work the next day, and the next day and the next day. We try to teach about DNA and comma splices without turning into robots even though that’s how we feel. We do it because our students need us to be normal in a predictable, safe classroom, talking about things that don’t hurt. Schools of education do not prepare pre-service teachers for this reality. Most people, during their teacher preparation programs, do not anticipate the actual lived experience of teaching—the lessons and grading; the exhausting routine of watching sports games, corralling kids during band concerts and manning concession booths; the demands of anxious parents; the calls to Child Protective Services. They certainly don’t consider student deaths or suicide epidemics. If they did, they might reconsider their chosen route, fearing what this path might demand of them emotionally. Pre-service teachers could certainly be better prepared, and current educators could be more robustly supported. But let’s be honest: What is to be done? Providing basic counseling services for students is essential, but it’s a Band-Aid on a gash. Combating systemic oppression, poverty, substance abuse, family dysfunction and personal sadness does not fall inside a teacher’s purview, but we feel and cope with the effects of those ills every single day. I have no solutions. But I know that most teachers care profoundly about their students and their community. How do we teach students to love themselves enough to stay in this world? All we can do is love them first. When tragedy strikes, we must continue doing our important work—the teaching and the loving. And we need help.
Anna Baldwin
Anna Baldwin is a high school English teacher at Arlee High School and has been teaching on the Flathead Indian Reservation for the past 17 years. She designed and teaches Native American studies for the Montana Digital Academy and taught English methods courses at the University of Montana for four years as an adjunct assistant professor. She has been selected as a 2016 Classroom Teaching ...

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