Teaching While Grieving a Death - National Council of Teachers of English
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Teaching While Grieving a Death

This post was written by NCTE member Mandie B. Dunn.

I didn’t intend to start studying teachers’ grieving experiences; it just sort of happened. My spouse was in a life-threatening car accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury, a punctured lung, crushed ribs, and other broken bones. During his lengthy recovery, I tried to balance caretaking with my professional responsibilities, including caring for students. Teaching felt more draining and challenging than it had before because I had nothing left to give.

Because of my situation, I was perhaps more sensitive to noticing what other teachers around me were going through, especially two teachers who were important to me: a pre-service teacher, Tiffani[1], who had been in my class for three semesters when her mother died from colon cancer, and a local middle school teacher, Emma, who lost a student by suicide.

As loss and grief have not traditionally been part of teacher training, I felt ill prepared to support Tiffani and Emma. I decided to focus my research on teachers’ grieving experiences, hoping to better understand how teachers navigate their professional roles in the context of personal loss.

Of course, there are a million reasons why bereavement is generally hard: its physical and psychological toll, the forced navigation of uncertainty, and the profound sadness we experience when someone we love is no longer with us on earth.

One thing that I believe makes teaching while grieving particularly challenging is that teaching involves relational work.

Relational Work

Relational work is the work teachers do to form relationships with students and colleagues, including building trust, showing care, developing mutual interests, and providing support for learning. One component of relational work is emotional labor, what Arlie Hochschild described as the effort that service professionals (e.g., teachers) exert to shape or suppress their own emotions in order to preserve comfort for their clients (e.g., students).

One form of emotional labor I’ve addressed in my own research is teachers’ suppression of emotions related to loss. Teachers may try to push down emotions such as sadness, anger, worry, or despair, because they perceive that caring for students preempts their personal needs.

For example, Emma, who had lost a student to suicide, described avoiding students seeing her cry:

I was just kinda sitting at my desk and I was able to cry without people seeing me. My desk was in the back of the room. . . . I know this kid walked up to me to tell me one of my little mistakes in the groups, and she just walked up, and I remember just looking up and I was like, “I’m so sorry” [laughs]. Just crying, and I was like, “I’ll fix it.” And then I just walked out. I didn’t know what else to do [laughs].

In Emma’s account, I see her focusing on what she needs to do for students by decentering her sadness and even her feelings of inadequacy or imperfection. Emma saw her role as creating the best possible classroom environment for students and saw her tears as disrupting that environment.

When I asked Tiffani whether she thought teachers were allowed to grieve, she explained:

In my limited experience, I would say [grieving] is discouraged [laughs]. I think you can on your own time. I think that’s kind of why people wanted me to get over [my mother’s death]. They were like, time and place and this isn’t it. . . . Even just, I can’t find a place to have a cry without somebody seeing me. It’s just, you can’t really be yourself. You can in certain ways, but you’re supposed to leave the ugly parts of yourself at home and deal with those later.

Tiffani’s expression that she should leave “the ugly parts” of herself at home has always stuck out to me as a poignant expression of what it is like to be a teacher managing any kind of negative personal circumstance. In her case, she didn’t feel she could be herself at work.

Much like Emma and Tiffani, we teachers come to see emotional vulnerability as weakness that disrupts our ability to work and care for students. During a period of personal distress, teachers may find that it takes more effort to suppress or hide emotions they perceive as negative or disruptive.

What to Do

So often, public narratives about teaching suggest that teachers do what they do for the kids, but we need to consider the pressure this stance puts on teachers and recognize that teachers cannot care for students when they aren’t allowed to care for themselves.

First, administrators, teacher educators, and colleagues need to respond to teachers as human beings and acknowledge their grief. So many teachers I have worked with experience additional distress because they feel they are failing at hiding grief. Arlie Hochschild found that chronic engagement in this kind of emotion management can lead to emotional distress and burnout. In honoring the range of life experiences and emotions teachers bring with them to their teaching lives, educators begin to take collective responsibility for our shared humanity.

Second, we can acknowledge relational work as teaching expertise and as an area that requires more effort following personal loss. My hope is that when teachers understand why their job feels harder during grief, they will feel less shame and guilt for not being 100 percent all the time.

Teachers also need more support. The emotional labor that goes into this relational work is too often overlooked. We can change that narrative: prioritizing student needs does not have to require suppressing teachers’ needs. Instead, we can envision teachers’ needs and humanity as critical influences on relationship-building in classrooms.

Resources about Loss, Emotions, and Teaching

“Teaching Your Heart Out: Emotional Labor and the Need for Systemic Change” by Emily Kaplan

Special Issues, Volume 1: Trauma-Informed Teaching: Cultivating Healing-Centered ELA Classrooms, edited by Sakeena Everett

“Intersection of Social-Emotional Learning & Equity Vital” by Dena Simmons


[1] Teachers’ names are pseudonyms. This blog post is based on Mandie Bevels Dunn’s article Teaching While Grieving a Death: Navigating the Complexities of Relational Work, Emotional Labor, and English Language Arts Teaching, published in English Education in July 2022.


Mandie Bevels Dunn is an assistant professor of English education at the University of South Florida. Motivated by an interest in teacher wellness, she studies how teachers’ emotions and personal experiences influence teaching and learning, especially in English language arts classrooms. In particular, she has been studying how teachers who were grieving a death managed their emotions in the context of reading, writing, and thinking with students.


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