What It's Like Teaching From Inside a Suicide Epidemic

Dec 15, 2017 12:00:00 AM


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. [pullquote position="right"] I count them. I think about them. I remember them.[/pullquote] 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. [pullquote]When teachers are left to pick up pieces after the worst possible outcome, we must persist so we can be present for everyone else[/pullquote]—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? [pullquote position="right"]Providing basic counseling services for students is essential, but it’s a Band-Aid on a gash.[/pullquote] 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 Ambassador Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education. Baldwin is the recipient of several awards, including the Horace Mann Excellence in Teaching Award, Montana Association of Teachers of English Language Arts Distinguished Educator Award, and the Award for Excellence in Culturally Responsive Teaching from Teaching Tolerance. She was the 2014 Montana Teacher of the Year.

The Feed


  • What's an IEP and How to Ensure Your Child's Needs Are Met?

    Ed Post Staff

    If you have a child with disabilities, you’re not alone: According to the latest data, over 7 million American schoolchildren — 14% of all students ages 3-21 — are classified as eligible for special...

  • Seeking Justice for Black and Brown Children? Focus on the Social Determinants of Health

    Laura Waters

    The fight for educational equity has never been just about schools. The real North Star for this work is providing opportunities for each child to thrive into adulthood. This means that our advocacy...

  • Why Math Identity Matters

    Lane Wright

    The story you tell yourself about your own math ability tends to become true. This isn’t some Oprah aphorism about attracting what you want from the universe. Well, I guess it kind of is, but...