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Editor’s Note:  A new book, Creating Inclusion and Well-Being for Marginalized Students (2017) explores the impact on learning of life experiences among students who are part of “marginalized” groups – groups subject to loss, grief, trauma and shame.  In this excerpt, contributor and public school teacher Kyle Schwartz offers a glimpse into the power of students helping other students deal with their emotions in her third-grade classroom. 

“We got your back”

If you visit our classroom for a few hours you will hear the same short phrase repeated over and over again. “We got your back.” It’s a powerful little saying that communicates so much in four small words. Each day I make time for students to share anything they would like with the class. Many classrooms have a version of this, but I call mine CQC for “Celebrations, Questions, or Concerns”… When a student tells the class about a difficult situation, there is a need for connection. That is where “We got your back” comes in…

The phrase “we got your back” tells students there is a community in this classroom that is looking out for them and supporting them. Each and every one of us faces challenges and this makes it clear that no one has to struggle in isolation in our classroom. One of the beautiful little aspects of a “we got your back” type of community is each year the kids start to say it to me. If the computer suddenly stops working in the middle of a lesson, I hear a chorus of “We got your back, Miss.” If I tell students that visitors will be in our classroom observing and I need them on their best behavior, inevitably someone will say, “Don’t worry Miss, we got your back.”

Students supporting students

In my classroom, we are not just a random assortment of eight and nine year-olds. We are a community. Creating a community focused environment requires that I sometimes take a step back and deliberately empower students help each other even through challenging circumstances.

A perfect example of this concept at work was when Gabe’s cat died. When I visited Gabe’s house a few weeks before, he proudly showed off the family pet, Mittens. One morning, Gabe’s mother sent me an email to let me that know the cat had to be put down. So, when Gabe looked at the clock during a reading lesson and flatly said, “It’s 9:17 so she has been dead for two minutes now.” I knew exactly what he meant.

Some teachers might think the death of a cat is not an issue worth addressing in class. They are wrong. To a child, the loss of a pet is significant, especially because it is often the first experience with grief. Which means it is an opportunity for children to go through the grieving process with support. I invited Gabe to write about Mittens. I told him he could put down all this thoughts and feelings so he would never forget his pet. At the end of class, Gabe asked if he could share what he wrote with the class. The rest of the class chimed in saying, “We got your back.”

Mittens My Wonderful Kitten by Gabe

I will never forget my cat Mittens. I will never forget how soft and fluffy she was. She was the best cat I ever met. March 15th 2016 was rough, my mom said, “She’s really sick.” And then she said, “They are going to give her medicine that will put her to sleep but not sleep because she’ll be dead.” So it was a rough night for me because I did not want to lose my first pet because at first I never knew what being a pet owner was like but now I do know and we only had her from August 2014 to today, March 15th 2016. She was so sweet and her stare was so cute.

Mittens I love you!

A few weeks later Rainah came into class ready to talk. The first thing she said to me was, “When are we doing celebrations and concerns?  Because I have one to share.”  She gave the class a detailed account of her cousin’s funeral. She told the class that she didn’t know why all these bad things were happening and she broke down in tears. Several students scooted closer to her and patted her back while she cried. I told her that this must be a sad time, but we were all here to support her. Then I asked Gabe if he would help Rainah write about her cousin, just as he had done for Mittens. The two cozied up in a corner of the room. I am not sure what they said to each other, but that was not the point. This was an opportunity for students to support each other. At the end of class, Rainah shared the following writing about her cousin.

About My Cousin Alfredo/Nico by Rainah

My cousin Nico was a great man he got leukemia in 2014 before he got leukemia he married my cousin Jasmine that’s how Nico became my cousin. My cousin Nico was also a rapper his rapper name was West one. Back to leukemia he was in the hospital for a while… But two weeks later he had passed away into the light. Next Friday it was his funeral and my cousin Jasmine was saying, “It was not fair that her family is going to heaven because her Mom died when she was only 11 months old and her Uncle died when she was 11 years old also when she was pregnant with a Baby Girl she died in her stomach and now she is losing her Husband.” I wish the hospital found a cure for Nico because he would still be alive right now and I would be so happy but now it feels like a part of my heart is gone forever and it hurts and if he was alive my cousin Jasmine will still be happy. So that was about my cousin Nico. Nico I still love you and I miss you so much and I love my cousin Jasmine so much. It won’t be the same without you I love you Alfredo. REST IN HEAVEN. I will see you again someday.

This whole episode benefited both students. They were able to tell their community about a personal challenge and feel supported. For Gabe, he not only processed his loss, but his grief had a greater purpose. He now knew how to shepherd someone else through a difficult time. For her part, Rainah was able to pay it forward a few days later when another girl came to school distressed about a fight she had with her mother. Rainah knew just what to do and helped this girl process her feelings.

The entire class also benefited. Students saw that death and loss are acceptable topics at school and were witness to a healthy model of bereavement.

As a teacher, I know how to directly support my students in the midst of tragedy. I can sit with each one of them individually and help them process their feelings. Ultimately, that is not my goal. My goal is to create an environment where students are able not just to be the recipient of support but also empowered to be a source of encouragement for others. This happens when relationships and trust are established and teachers intentionally allow for students to take active roles in helping each other.

Kyle Schwartz is a public school teacher in Denver, CO. In addition to teaching, Kyle is a dedicated advocate for students, speaking internationally about support students and building strong communities in classrooms. Kyle authored I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids (2016)

Excerpted from Creating Inclusion and Well-being for Marginalized Students(2017), edited by Linda Goldman, MS, and published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.