Introduction: Raquel Mendoza
Todayś post is my first guest post written by one of my very best friendś, Raquel Mendoza. Raquel teaches 5th grade in Austin and graduated with honors from the University of Texas Austin. Just recently, she lost someone very close to her, her uncle. He battled cancer for several years, and just like a lot of cancer victims we know, was the epitome of strength. After his death, his family stuck together and honored his legacy. Raquel had a weekend to grieve, and then went back into the classroom like the champion she is. We all have been thrown back into work situations not ready, and for teachers, we have 30-120 little ones depending on us to be there both physically and mentally. Even when we go through trauma, we still are thinking about them, wondering if the lesson plans are working out okay for the sub, if that one student got enough for lunch, and if they are really going to be ready for that assessment in a week. We never take breaks, but fortunately, we have a pretty solid team of supporters all around us, including the babies we teach every day. Read below as to how Raquel took the transition stepping back into the classroom and how she got through one of the hardest times of her life.
“Unfortunately, we will all face loss at some point in our lives and our career.” – Educators 2 Educators Podcast, #39 The Grieving Teacher
Just like Allie, I am a teacher, and I am finishing up my fifth year of teaching. I teach 24 fifth graders eight hours a day, five days a week. I spend my days on constant overload making sure that every single need of every single child that is in my room is met. If you’re a teacher, you’ll understand exactly what I mean when I say that it is truly exhausting to have to be “on” all of the time, and bad days don’t really exist for a teacher in the world of teaching. You come to school, you make sure you are shaping your students into well rounded tiny humans, you go home to think about how you can make tomorrow better, and you wake up the next day to do it all over again. This has been my routine for the past five years, but the thing that makes this school year so different than all of my others is that because of the loss of a family member, I have been drowning in grief.
For the past two years, my uncle was battling cancer, and two weeks ago, cancer claimed his life. Seeing the people I love most in this world in pain is indescribable. My world became this surreal blur filled with grief. I got lost in the midst of hospitals, doctors, and tears, but I was surrounded by family and people who could empathize with what I was going through in that exact moment. But one of the things that didn’t even cross my mind during that time was that I was going to have to eventually face reality again and get back to work. The school year was coming to an end, and my students needed me as they were about to embark on their last week of elementary school.
I can’t do this was all I could think when I was getting ready for work the following Monday morning. My uncle passed away on Friday, I had the weekend to “grieve”, and then it was time to get back into the classroom. While I was driving to work, I kept thinking to myself, how am I supposed to be present and in the moment right now for twenty-four 5th graders when I can’t even be there for myself right now? I had absolutely no idea how I was going to make it through the day. As teachers, we’re all guilty of saying that a few times throughout the year. ‘I don’t know how I’m going to make it, these kids are something else today!’ But this time, I really didn’t know how I was going to keep myself on my own two feet, form coherent sentences without crying, and give my attention, if any at all, to my students who haven’t seen me for the past two school days. When I walked through the front doors and down the hallways, I was greeted by parents and students the same way I was every single morning before, “Good morning, Ms. Mendoza!”. Their smiles were the same, their cheeriness was the same. When I walked into my room, every single paper was the way I had left it before I had lost my uncle, and I suddenly became so angry that I started to cry. I was so mad that the world was continuing, that everyone’s lives were moving on when I was stuck in this hole of sadness. I really, really can’t do this was a broken record thumping in my head.
One of the hard things about loss, as I said above, is that isolation is usually the easiest and most occurred response. But as a teacher, we don’t get to do that. Those kids need us, and I was definitely dreading it. But when I reflect back on that moment I told my students that my uncle died, something changed within the walls of my classroom. Every year I say that my students continue to save me, but this particular group of students truly did save me and enabled me to start to heal. Let me tell you- if you have not experienced the support that your kiddos can give you, it truly is magical. They cried with me, they hugged me, they told me they loved me, and they listened to my stories that I wanted to tell about my uncle. If you are a teacher going through grief, lean on those children because they truly are amazing. The voice in my head changed after seeing those faces, maybe I can get through this after all.
There are also two very important things I learned when I came back to work: there are colleagues who will rise up and support you in ways that you didn’t think you needed, and some are made uncomfortable by death, and they will avoid you like the plague, and honestly, that’s okay. One of my teammates who teaches fifth grade with me completely avoided asking me how I was feeling, how I was coping, and if there was anything that I needed. But I also had a teammate who sat in my room with me during our planning period while I just cried. As a teacher who is grieving, you learn to hold onto those colleagues who step up and support you. I had a colleague leave a note in my box that said, “There are no words to make you feel better, but know that I am here if you need anything at all,” and I will never forget how that note impacted me. Of course, nothing is going to take away the pain I feel because of this loss, but knowing that I have people in my workplace who are helping me walk through the day and into tomorrow helps me shape and find my new normal.
Today, I am writing for the grieving teacher who’s lost someone, the people who want to support the grieving teacher, and for me, because let’s face it: loss is hard. Losing a loved one, family member, friend, dog, cat, anything that holds true value to you can be one of the hardest things a human being might have to go through. If you are going through grief right now, please know that what you are feeling is okay. You are processing through your emotions the best way you know how and how you feel is completely okay, but you don’t have to do it alone. Going through grief in the world of teaching can be one of the most demanding and exhausting things, but it can also be a blessing that you never knew you had. Lean on the co-workers who show that they are there for you because trust me, you are going to need them. And most importantly, lean on those children in your classroom because the structure and stability they bring will literally be your saving grace. They will push you to take that first step, and another step, and another step, until you feel like you can finally start to walk again on your own.