by Adrian Pruett, teacher
It happened again. Another town. Another name. Another family buried in sorrow. Another hashtag.
As our nation engages in a discussion about police brutality, we are each personally affected. For some, the deaths of the officers in Dallas bring forth deep fear for the people they love who serve in law enforcement. For others, the mere distance from the conversation, their perceived inability to process the tragedy of it all, and their feelings of inadequacy for never having the right words for such a catastrophe are paralyzing. And for many, each Black man slain is a crippling reminder that their sons, fathers, husbands, boyfriends, friends, and family members who are Black men have no control over the fear of others and are therefore constantly unsafe.
When issues of race, immigration, foreign terror, and genocide trouble our country, we all experience strong feelings on the matter, ranging widely from rage to denial. We are all affected.
But when our Monday workday rolls around, we will each be in vastly different spaces along our journeys to grieve and heal from these tragedies. One coworker might feel as though the story is old news because she has posted about it on social media and cleared her conscience enough to sleep at night. Another might be brewing a deep anger for the indifference displayed time and time again from the U.S. Department of Justice and Foreign Affairs. Another still might be near tears as he recalls the videos of the horrific events. So what now? How do we work AND grieve, given our unique and different feelings?
Why is it dangerous not to grieve at work?
When I was in elementary school, I watched a friend cut ahead in the lunch line. She knew that I could not cut with her but, considering the length of the line, she chose to leave me behind. She was solely focused on avoiding the wait, but I was left feeling that, to her, convenience was more important than my company. That feeling can apply to grief as well. When we avoid conversations about race and police violence for our own convenience or comfort, we risk alienating those who are grieving. Our silence may imply that their pain is not as important as the work we do or that they need to hide their pain for the sake of our comfort and convenience.
For those who are grieving, it is equally important to bring your pain to work. In elementary school, I made large generalizations about the values of my friend, who I believed cared very little about whether or not I ate. When we do not allow others to see us grieve, we are more likely to make assumptions about their priorities and often harbor resentment for responsibilities they may not have even been aware of.
Over time, these relationships are damaged by the silence and there are missed opportunities to collaborate. If we want to succeed in our work and educate our students, our teams must thrive. We are each responsible for this task.
How do I share my thoughts when they [seemingly] impose on the productivity of others?
If you have asked yourself this question before, you might really be asking one of the following questions:
- What if I’m picking at a colleague’s emotional scab by bringing it up? It’s important to show your colleagues that you care and that they have space to talk to you if they choose. You might say, “I won’t pretend to know what this may feel like for you, but I hope that you know that I care and that I’m here if you’d like to talk. How are you today?” Because the question comes from a good place, the outcome may not be perfect, but it is always better than nothing. Despite race, you most likely identify with losing a loved one. Consequently, you most likely know the deep sense of connection you feel when a friend chooses to ignore how hard it is to talk about death and picks up the phone to make sure that you are okay. You have the power and the responsibility to be a sympathetic listener for your colleagues as we navigate these waters together.
- How do I grieve in a space where people seem to be working just fine around/without me? Grieving at work is hard, especially when you feel like you have to initiate the conversation you need in order to process tragedy. Pain can make us feel like a burden, so finding a space to grieve at work can seem impossible. But it’s important to remember that each tear shed that is visible to our colleagues gives them a reason to latch onto the conversation. When we share our pain, we open ourselves to the opportunity to build connections and combat the isolation we feel.
What if those who witness my thoughts disagree?
They may. Accept that. And accept that it may feel uncomfortable.
As a teacher, I teach my students to be risk-takers since mistakes are how we learn. As colleagues, we must embody that same concept. Take a risk and share your feelings and listen to those who disagree. Molding minds requires confrontation with ourselves and others. Accept that racism will not be solved by the end of your conversation. Your willingness to participate speaks volumes to your colleagues of your desire to make things better.
As a teacher, how does this affect my students?
At YES Prep, where I teach, my colleagues share a passion for our students and a hope for their future. We worry about how they are moved and persuaded by events in the news and yet feel conflicted by a desire to maintain their innocence. And too often, we focus on the lesson of the day so that no one has to talk about the pain we feel. There are a handful of teachers who feel prepared to lead full lessons on racial injustices, but for the rest of us, stating the fact can be a start. For example, you could say, “Good morning, class. I may look a little drained today because the events in the news kept me up last night. Regardless, please know that I am happy to be here and today is going to be a great day.” This statement offers students the opportunity to join the conversation, a conversation that is of vital importance to their futures as voting citizens.
There are also many resources available for talking to students about violence and racism.
- Teaching About Race, Racism and Police Violence by Tolerance.org
- Addressing Children’s Emotional Needs in a time of Crisis by Johns Hopkins Medicine
- Talking to Kids about Race and Class and How to Talk to Kids about Tragic Events by CNN
Read more from guest blogger, Adrian Pruett.