Addressing grief in the classroom can be challenging, but educators play a special role in helping students move through difficult life events.
Today on the podcast we’re joined by Brittany R. Collins and Marlee Bunch. Brittany is the author of Learning from Loss: A Trauma-Informed Approach to Supporting Grieving Students. Her work centers around acknowledging the many ways grief may show up for students and identifying a holistic path forward.
Marlee Bunch the current Senior Director of Diversity and Culture for Comprehensive Mental Health and a contracted Director of Education and Diversity for Race Project KC. She is a close colleague of Brittany and is currently working with her to develop a DEI companion resource for Learning from Loss.
Together, Brittany and Marlee discuss what a grief-responsive approach looks like, and how we can shift our perspectives to embrace grief when in shows up.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Brittany: So Marlee, when I start to engage in a conversation around grief and loss and teaching, I always appreciate, and I know that this is something that you also value in your own practice, the opportunity to take a moment to pause and think intentionally about language. And that's something that you and I talk about in our teaching, both individually and together is how much language is a tool, both to harm and to heal. And language is really the root of teaching and connection and all of the other facets of the conversation that we're about to have. So I would love if we could take just a moment to think about the language that we use around grief and loss, and this is something that I engage with in the book, and then also would love to discuss how we can think together about the dominant narratives that surround grief, loss, trauma in society and in education, and what we can do as practitioners to shift language to be more inclusive when we consider loss experiences.
So I think for listeners, it might be helpful to have a little bit of context about grief responsive teaching. That's a term that I introduce in the book in Learning From Loss. I use grief responsive teaching as a term to just describe a pedagogical and an interpersonal approach to teaching and learning that integrates science and stories of grief into actionable classroom practices that support both students and teachers wellbeing in times of loss. So I never want to lose sight of that both and of thinking about both students and teachers wellbeing. I think it's really important in this conversation to think about how both adults and young people are impacted by grief, by loss, by trauma, have emotional and intellectual responses to those experiences, and are both subjects in this conversation. I've often received questions about how this term fits into other discourses like trauma informed education, like social-emotional learning.
I definitely view it as being connected to all of those things. The reason that I decided to use this term in the book is to both center grief and loss, which is what we're here to talk about, but also to think about that word responsive. And so, we're advocating for teachers to not only be sensitive to loss experiences and aware of loss experiences in the way that they impact their lives and students lives, but also respond and take action to that knowledge in a way that feels more empowered. And so, that's kind of the thinking behind my term of grief responsive teaching. But Marlee, I would love to bring you into this conversation and think together about how does language impact perceptions of loss of trauma. You and I have also talked about the intersections of DEI and ABAR work and grief responsive teaching. And I think language certainly ties into that.
Marlee: Yeah. I think we have talked a lot about this and the idea that we know words matter. We also know that words have been used to marginalize certain groups when we're talking about ABAR and DEI work. And so how we can shift our language as educators and just community members to make sure that we are inclusive when we talk about grief responsive teaching and when we talk about grief work. And you said something super important. I think we can use language to make sure that we are using it to serve as a counter narrative to the master narrative. And I definitely think when we talk about grief work, DEI, classroom, everything, we know that there historically and currently is a master narrative that I think using that language can help to deconstruct. So that's super important.
Brittany: Absolutely. And that's making me think too about an asset based lens and a deficit based lens. And so you and I, in our teaching, have talked about how there is often a societal deficit based lens around experiences of grief and loss and trauma, especially if we start to think about those words in themselves, expanding beyond the specific like physical death or loss of a person to encompass other types of losses, which is something that we can go into and talk more about.
But there's sometimes this deficit based thinking and then language around and silencing of experiences of grief, loss, and trauma. And especially in Western society, like we are often socialized into that silence as we get older, especially about our own experiences. And then also, that leads us to maybe feeling uncomfortable about knowing how best to respond to and support those experiences in other people's lives. One of the areas in which I think about the deficit based lens is especially in regards to student behavior. So there's a discourse in education right now about shifting from the term behavioral challenges to behavioral changes.
And I kind of dance between both of those terms in the book, because I also argue that a lot of the brain based changes that we all experience in response to loss, they can impact our behavior in ways that are challenging for both the person experiencing the change and the person witnessing the change. And so that's not meant to stigmatize the person who's experiencing that change in any way, but think being mindfully about an adaptation focused lens, and this is going back to that asset idea. And Marlee, you and I have talked about this, any kind of behavioral change that happens in response to loss and that spectrum is very wide from apathy to perfectionism, from connection seeking to avoidance coping mechanisms.
All of those sort of behavioral responses are often an incredibly inventive adaptation in a lost context. And so this ties also into conversations about trauma, where in the context of loss, we might develop a certain coping mechanism, let's say anger. And that response often serves us so well in the context of loss. Like that anger might be helping me or might be helping a student in a loss setting stand up for someone in a situation where they need that kind of support and that angers helping us in that way and serving us well.
And then in a classroom setting, when someone is taken out of the lost context, for which serving them sometimes that same behavioral change can be viewed through a deficit based lens if we're not thinking about it as an adaptation or not thinking about the story from which it is coming. And so, I think that this all not to stray too far away from language, but to me all kind of connects back to this idea of the lens, through which we're viewing loss experiences, stories of those loss experiences, and also the way that they're manifesting in the moment in young people and colleagues and ourselves, and being aware of that both in ourselves and in others. But Marlee, is there anything that you would like to add on that conversation?
Marlee: Yeah, no, I think that's important. I think helping people and some of this language, I think it gets confusing when you're doing this work because you're in the moment. And so to keep track of some of the terms, it's like, ooh, it feels overwhelming, but I think really it all just boils down to empathy versus sympathy, right? Those are two huge pieces to understand. And also I love what you said about how sometimes the behaviors that we see of emerge from a student who's dealing with loss, we know that they can also be temporary, right? Like even if it's something that's viewed negative, we have to be careful not to attach those expressions of sadness with the student or with the person. And then on the other side of that, I think it might be worthwhile to talk just a minute. We've talked about it before, but like for people who haven't been through loss, especially at a young age, acknowledging that once you get on the other side of it, there are pieces of it that are not... What's the word we want to use? That aren't...
Brittany: A deficit, right?
Marlee: Yeah. I mean, it is a tragedy, but I think those of us who have experienced it also come out of it more resilient and we value people and memories in a really beautiful and different way. And so there are some positives, if that's the right term that I would say, we have to make sure that we're acknowledging too, and that helps us avoid slipping into that sympathy space, I think.
Brittany: And that's making me think also about educator saviorism and the mindset that a caring adult that could be a teacher, a coach, a counselor, any caring adult in a young person's life. It can sometimes slip into the mindset that if we're viewing a student's story through the lens of tragedy, feeling the onus or the responsibility to be the one person that saves that student from their story. And that's coming from a place of caring, but is an approach that is ultimately detrimental both to the caring adult and to the student. That students who are experiencing loss don't need to be saved, right? And students who are experiencing loss bring to the table incredible strength and learning, and the ability to tell you as the adult, how best to support them perhaps not through verbal articulation, but if you pay attention to what that student is telling you explicitly and implicitly, they will tell you how best to support them.
And then on the flip side of that, talking about how saviorism is also problematic for the teacher. In the book, I engage secondary traumatic stress or vicarious trauma. This idea that being the person to bear witness routinely to stories of lost, grief, and trauma can take an emotional toll especially if we, as caring adults also have a history of lost, grief, trauma in our own lives. And one of the ways to stave off or prevent the development of that intense response is thinking about boundaries. But thinking about that you are not that one person, that you are often a trusted adult in a positive relationship between a young person and a caring adult.
You're a positive person and an influence in that young person's life, but your role is ultimately to be a facilitator. And we can make connections between students and other students, students and activities that might support their wellbeing, students and colleagues and counselors and community resources. That we're kind of, I have this image in the book, a metaphor of a constellation. That we're one piece or one star in the constellation not to get too corny, but thinking about where it's a web, we're working with students collaboratively on the same level to co-author this kind of web with and for them of resources.
And so it's not that I am the caring adult and it's my job to go in and save every student from experiences of loss and ultimately that disempowers and discredits I think students who bring to the table as we have both set incredible insight into their own learning from loss and experiences with loss. And their comfort levels surrounding what they do and do not want the caring adults and in their lives to know and to do. That's important too, is to always kind of defer to the student to articulate on their own terms, what they feel comfortable expressing and sharing. Marlee, this is also making me think about, which we touched on briefly the different kinds of losses. So moving beyond this idea of a death of a person. Could you maybe talk a little bit more about that?
Marlee: Before we move on to that, can I say something really quickly before I forget it? When you were talking about this idea of saviorism, I think that's super important to also think about from a DEI perspective, because we know that that is something that happens. And then there has to be an awareness that we start to build I think, in classrooms about that just across the board, because it doesn't serve our students well. And then the other thing that I think is worth mentioning is you said something that's really important.
Typically we're not on an island when it comes to dealing with students who have experienced grief and loss, right? You have a building with counselors or you have a family who can help bear that with you, but I think, okay, well, what if you are, what if you happen to be in a school or in a situation where maybe there's not family in involvement, maybe your school is down a counselor. I think the same sentiments that you mentioned in the book can still apply. And I think that there are still ways to self care and making sure that you're not dealing with secondary trauma and still helping to serve your students. You might just have to be a little more creative, but I definitely think that those things exist. You might just have to look harder.
Brittany: Totally. And that makes me think also about this question, which I pose in the book and it's totally valid. And that came up in all of my interviews. What is the teacher's role? And is grief work really something that teachers should be dealing with? Should this be left to school counselors? Is this an issue that really is in the realm of school psychology? And Marlee, you and I have talked about this as well, and you have really compelling examples and stories that you might be willing to share from your own classroom practice. But what I kind of say to begin with is that grief work is both the teachers and if you have access to a counselor, then the counselor's job. Those roles will look different, but they're both equally important.
In saying that I don't ever want to imply that teachers are or should be trained mental health professionals or interventionists. That's not the implication, but instead that grief work is the practices in the book, the actionable kind of classroom practices ultimately benefit all students and teachers, whether or not they're experiencing a loss in that specific moment. And so this is really thinking holistically about wellbeing, about the three pillars of trauma informed care that's framework by Howard Bath, that poses safety, connection, and emotional regulations as three important tenants of building a culture that's supportive of folks who are experiencing grief, loss, and trauma.
We can take that a step further to think about safety. That means emotional safety, physical safety, cultural safety, identity based safety, emotional regulation, infusing into the curricula opportunities that afford students choice that empower agency, that support reflection and the kinds of environment based experiences. Instead of thinking just about one on one student caring adult support, but the environment based support that ultimately helps all of us learn better. And I think that grief impacts every part of the brain, almost every part of the brain, if we think about the neurological experience of grief. And so that ultimately impacts learning in one way or another. And so loss and learning are not separated. They influence one another and our environments can influence our processing and our ability to feel safe and supported.
Marlee: When you bring up, is it a teacher's job? Does it belong in the classroom? I think that that's something that probably every teacher grapples with at some point. It's interesting if you think even about like the teacher training programs, they don't really prepare you for, you and I talked about this, they don't prepare you for the realities of what you're going to have to deal with in regards to students who experience grief and trauma or elements of DEI. And so hopefully that changes in the future. But my perspective as an educator has always been, it is my job. They're with me most of the day. And so if we know that students are coming with more trauma and more grief, and your book offers some great statistics to help really paint a picture of kind of where we're at with that. And I think given COVID and just our societal social unrest and issues that we're facing, I think that we're going to see those numbers jump even more.
And so approaching, I think, as an educator, if we can shift our mindset to, yes, we're not counselors. I agree with that and love that you differentiate between the two, but I think grief and trauma work really just begins with listening. And we've talked about this, the importance of creating a safe space so that students can, the teacher doesn't necessarily need to help them process, but giving them the space to process for themselves and to come to those moments where they can self reflect and work through some of that is incredibly important.
I do think it is a part of the fabric of the classroom and what we do. It's interesting I taught at a suburban school with tons of resources and we had a student pass away in a car accident and an upperclassman. And so, my sophomores were devastated and many of whom were friends with this young man. And one of my girls had... went to the counseling office to get help and the counselor was like, "I don't know how to help you, I just do schedules. Go find a teacher or go find bunch." And so she comes into my room sobbing as I'm eating lunch and I was like, "Wow." Right.
It was a wake up call for me because sometimes I don't know that any adult knows exactly how to respond, but we also have to be cognizant that it might be that a student gets that response from one place. And so then really you are this great safe spot to land. And so I just gave her a space to sit and cry and didn't do anything phenomenal other than I was just a soft place to land. And so I like to think of it like that.
Brittany: Yeah. Bearing witness, right? Creating that space for, and that's, I think a really good example of the kind of one-on-one, more intensive student-teacher or student and caring adult support that can happen. And that manifests sometimes organically in the learning environment. And in the interviews for the book, teachers talk about that a lot. I was on a trip in nature with students and there were no other adults around. And we engaged in this activity that activated a students' grief and reminded them of their last experience and I was the only adult around to help them process that while also taking care of the wellbeing of everybody else that was in the space. And for this one particular teacher that I'm thinking of, she also said storytelling was a really important part of what got her and her students through that moment. Which I think resonates with what you've been saying Marlee about holding that space and also going back to the importance of language.
And I've certainly in teaching, writing have encountered it, especially through personal narrative assignments that are not geared towards loss in any way, but that ultimately invite students to write personal stories that then intersect with themes of loss and grief. And so determining in written response to that student, how do you best validate what they're sharing? Also thinking about the writing and the story at the same time and with the same kind of value, placing value on both of those things and holding that space in a written way. Right? Because it's not always verbal articulation, a lot of students, and you and I have talked about this because we both have personal experience being bereaved students. Students don't always feel comfortable sharing the details of their story, but it might come out in other ways, it might come out through writing, it might be an outlets. Outlets might take other forms as well. It might be a sports team or dancing or theater that this student finds to be a helpful coping mechanism. And it's direct considerations of grief.
Marlee: Yes. I think that's so important that you mentioned that it is not always through direct conversation. And you and I have, I mean, we used it at Smith together when we taught the idea of bringing in stories, right? It might be writing, it might be sharing a story that allows the student and you talk about that in the book, the poem that really hit home for you and your own story.
So I love that you mentioned it can come in all these different ways. And so that really I think sheds light on two things, right? The importance of being a mentor and being open as an educator to being a mentor, because I think really good educators who do grief work are willing to be a mentor and you and I could both speak to the power of having mentors in our life. And I think the other piece of that is, no matter what you teach, no matter what subject you teach, finding ways to infuse writing and stories and art and creativity throughout curriculums, across classrooms, I think is incredibly important. Because again, it serves as a mode for people to find their way to share and process all of this. So, yeah. I love that you mentioned that.
Brittany: And I also think in talking about creating these kinds of safe spaces, two things come to mind. One is that I want to acknowledge, and I might have said this already but, teachers don't necessarily need to know which students in their room are impacted by grief and trauma. There's a trauma informed education scholar, Alex Chevron Vinet who says, "Don't be a trauma detective." And this ties back into the savior idea of, we don't necessarily need to know which students are impacted, we don't necessarily need to know the details of their story. If they're not ready to share that on their terms I think, of course, what you're saying about story telling an identity in safe spaces, it's important to create opportunities where students do feel comfortable sharing pieces of their lived experience on their terms. But that's one thing that I think is always important, going back to the environment instead of just thinking about one-on-one support. But thinking about both environment based support and one-on-one, what happens when we mess up? Right?
And there's a chapter in the book that talks about repair and repair and caring relationships. Like what advice would you have for teachers who are... they care about this work, they have students in their classroom who are impacted by grief, loss, and trauma. Maybe they do or say something that they come to realize was not the best approach. Do you have any advice for teachers on how to continue building those caring relationships even after the situation that maybe we realized we want to revise?
Marlee: That's a good question. I mean, most of my teaching has been, I would say populations that have been slotted as high risk, high SES, all of that. So I've had a lot of traumatic and really interesting students and experiences. And I would say, the only way you can mess up is by not trying and by not being willing to learn. I think you've said it a few times now, students will guide you. And so being willing to follow their lead, which sometimes as teachers is hard to really step back and make sure that it's student centered and they will, they will tell you what they need. And I think if you do the work to build those authentic, and that's the keyword, relationships with them, they know it.
And so if you make a mistake, I think as educators, we say, "Hey, I made a mistake. I'm not sure that I said this the right way or handled this the right way, but I'm here to help you and I'm here to learn." I think that goes a long way with content, with grief work, with all... I think it's okay for adults to say, "I don't know, or let me get better at this." And so practicing, I think that part of our own growth in the profession is, I think, really critical to making sure that if we do mess up and you are going to mess up, because the situations are usually not when you expect them.
I had a student in the middle of one of my classes say that she had a suicide plan and you're like, "Whoa, it's 8:15 in the morning." So those things come out of left field and you don't always land on your feet and I think that's okay. It's okay to not know the perfect exact thing. But I think inaction is the only thing that I would say is dangerous, right? And this idea of, I know that I have students who have grief, but I really don't want to deal with it so I'm just going to put blinders on and not acknowledge it. I think that can be super dangerous.
Brittany: Definitely. It makes me think about how avoidance, this is something that I talk about in the book. Avoidance is a natural coping mechanism and response to grief, loss, and trauma that we all are often socialized to have, or have because of the brain-based changes that we experience in response to grief, loss, trauma. This is an experience or story that feels scary and that often causes us to acknowledge something that's unresolved in ourselves, right? And so, avoidance is making me think about what you've just said about it's most dangerous to not act or to not engage in this kind of work when there's an opportunity to do so. I think holding grace for ourselves and realizing that so much of grief work and grief responsive teaching starts with self reflect and understanding our own loss experiences, whether or not we were supported during them, how they continue to inform us today and our responses to grief, loss, trauma, and other people today.
A lot of it starts with the self, but then how do we take that self-reflection and translate it into action? I love what you're saying about modeling learning, and the title is Learning From Loss, right? Like the point is how do we take these opportunities to process our experiences on an individual and a communal level?
Because so much of grief in Western society's individualistic and yet so much healing, we know from the research happens in community and in connection with others. How do we ultimately model learning and model not knowing and model revision? And I really appreciate that. There's also some research in the field of trauma informed ed that suggests that a lot of students might not have a model for that kind of interactive repair. So having an adult come back to a conversation or an action and say, you know what, I'm really not proud of the way that I did that or said that. And here's what was going on in that moment. And here's what I wish I had done or what I wish I had said. That can hold all the difference in both how student views themselves and their own story. And then also how they interact with others and learn how to do that kind of interactive repair with others.
Marlee: What do you think about, I think it might be good to just round out and end the conversation with, we've been on both sides of this, so as educators and as student in a classroom, what are some tangible, because what you just said made me think about that. What are some tangible ways if I'm listening to this as an educator or just a, you pointed out, like the community piece I'm in the community. I want to some tangible ways that I can facilitate this work. Is there anything that you would say could happen? One of the things I think about is even just classroom setup, right? Like having desks in a circle, I think, facilitates a discussion that feels more open and more accessible. We mentioned writing, bringing in different ways, whether that be art or stories. And when you mentioned modeling, I thought about if you're in a circle and you do Socratic discussions, what I've seen is oftentimes students will, not just the teachers model, but students will then model to other students who have experienced grief or loss, or even the ones who have not really beautiful ways of how to process and be resilient and all of those great things.
Are there anything you would add to that list if someone's like, I want a tangible takeaway.
Brittany: Definitely. Yeah. So there's two parts of that question to mind. The first is more implicit and the other is more explicit. So implicitly, I think about the importance of routine and that's something that both young people and educators and grief counselors, who I interviewed talked about, how in the face of loss, when your world and your routine is disrupted and feeling chaotic, we feel a lack of control. Often, subliminally, we seek out opportunities to restore that sense of routine, of predictability, of control. And so thinking mindfully in the classroom about how do you set up consistency and predictability with students that ultimately creates a sense of safety that it could be if you know that a student has a trusting relationship with you, that could be setting up a weekly meeting with that student to take some time to debrief, check in, talk about how schoolwork is going, does that student feel that they need accommodations? Does that student feel like they're being supported in the learning environment? It could also be in the classroom starting and stopping your class the same way each day.
Maybe we think about integrating mindfulness. You know, we begin together with a mindfulness activity. We have free writing as an exit ticket related to whatever content matter we're teaching. So that's more implicit and the same thing goes for choice. That's one way to empower a sense of control in students is offering choice, whether that's something small, like choice based reading assignments or inquiry based, learning where a student is having a say in what they're studying and how they're studying it.
These all sound like they might be disconnected to grief, but ultimately support a sense of autonomy and control and consistency that seek to kind of buoy wellbeing in the face of loss. And then more explicitly going back to what you were saying, Marlee, about processing and inviting lived experience into the classroom. So we do not necessarily want to put students on the spot to think or talk about their loss experiences. That can risk harm and risk perpetuating trauma. And I talk in the book about four different types of vulnerability. There's scaffolded vulnerability, which is what I'll offer here as kind of a goal in, in writing and talking and thinking. And I love what you said about students modeling expression of identity for each other. But two, the other forms of vulnerability are forced vulnerability, ignored vulnerability, right? These ideas that a student might make themselves vulnerable and are not met in that space or are put on the spot to be vulnerable. And that's not ideal either that can risk harm. So I always say creating spaces for expressions of identity, but on students' terms, right?
And likewise for colleagues, right. Adults, I think are a part of this conversation too, but having an open invitation to expressing your self and your learnings and your lived experience and the expertise that you bring into the classroom in a way that feels comfortable for you in that given moment.
Marlee: I love that. I think those are all super great ways that people could put your book and the content into action in classrooms. And I just so much appreciate that you have written about this topic. I think it's incredibly important. I think it is such a beautiful intersection of DEI and trauma informed care and definitely worthwhile. And I just appreciate having this time with you and this conversation
Brittany: Well, and I appreciate you and your role and life as a mentor. I've learned so much about education and teaching both observing you in the classroom and teaching with you in, both in person and digital classrooms now, nowadays. And so I really appreciate the perspective that you bring to this, both as someone who has lived through it, as I have, and also someone who's thought intentionally about it from an educator perspective and not only the student perspective. I think it's really unique to have that kind of full circle and be able to think and talk about it together. So thank you.
Marlee: Absolutely. Before we sign off, are there any spaces that listeners can get their hands on resource sources or anywhere you would direct them for further learning?
Brittany: Absolutely. So of course the Heinemann website, you can access the Learning From Loss book there, as well as some accompanying resources and Marlee and I are in the process of co-authoring an anti bias anti-racist grief responsive teaching study guide to accompany the book. There are also several blog posts that are currently up that accompany the book. But I'll also mention the grief responsive teaching website, www.griefresponsiveteaching.com, and then the grief responsive teaching Instagram. That's just the handle @griefresponsiveteaching.
I post free resources on a consistent basis in both of those spaces. So on the website and on the Instagram. So that's a space to learn more and engage in conversations even beyond the book. Because as I discovered while writing, this could be an endless series of books, there is no end to this conversation. I'm always learning. We're all always learning as we engage in this work. So I feel lucky to have that space to continue the conversation.
Brittany Collins is an author, educator, and curriculum designer dedicated to supporting teachers’ and students’ social and emotional wellbeing, especially in times of adversity. Her work explores the impacts of grief, loss, and trauma in the school system, as well as how innovative pedagogies—from inquiry-based learning to identity development curricula—can create conditions supportive of all learners. She is the Founder of Grief-Responsive Teaching, a professional learning community and resource hub that supports students' and teachers' wellbeing in times of loss.
Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post; Education Week; Edutopia; Inside Higher Ed; We Need Diverse Books; English Journal and Literacy & NCTE of the National Council of Teachers of English; Teachers’ and Writers’ Magazine; and Thrive Global, among other outlets, and she has developed curricula for PBS Learning Media, Write the World, Smith College, Boston University, and Race Project Kansas City, among other schools and organizations. Her new book is Learning From Loss.
Marlee Bunch holds two graduate degrees—one from DePaul University and the other from Emporia State University. Her background includes fifteen years of experience in teaching and education. She has taught literature, Advanced English, Reading/Writing Workshops, Adult Education, Gifted Education, and poetry. She facilitates and implements writing workshops for Race Project KC (Cultivating Writers), and is the Senior Director of Diversity and Culture for Comprehensive Mental Health. She is completing her Ph.D., in Diversity and Equity, from the University of Illinois.
Connect with Marlee on her website.