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Teaching through Sadness

Friday, April 13, 2018

Ali ShepardThis past weekend Burgundy lost one of our beloved goats, Ruby. She would have been 9 in August and lived a wonderful and full life at Burgundy. In Ruby’s passing, I have been reminded of exactly what makes Burgundy the best place for me and so special for all our students. The value of truth, as well as the belief that social and emotional intelligence belong at the heart of education, are exactly why I will be a Burgundian for life.

On Monday, I was invited to meet with the Kindergarten and First Grade classes to share the sad news about Ruby and to answer questions from the students. I’ve also met with JK and 2/3 students this week. I was prepared for thoughtful questions, like those I had seen previously when discussing the death of a Burgundy animal, but I was simply blown away by the sensitivity and understanding shown by the students and my colleagues in assisting in teaching the difficult lesson of coping with a loss.

I love that we, as educators, respect and trust our students enough to be appropriately honest with them about sad events. After explaining the story of Ruby’s natural passing, the students asked questions such as “Where did she die?” “Where and how was she buried?” and “How do the other animals feel about Ruby being gone?” I was pleased to tell them about Ruby’s happy life, relatively easy death, and the way the other animals reacted. Much like our students, the herd mates of a deceased animal have questions and need an opportunity to grieve. After Ruby died, I allowed the other animals back into the barn to see her body. They each took turns smelling her body to gather information about what happened to their friend, processed it to understand, and then went about their normal routines. Just like humans who are given the opportunity to gather information and process a loss, the animals have more peaceful reactions when allowed that time to grieve.


A note for Ruby

I was also glad to both hear and share the varied feelings about the news of Ruby’s death. I explained to the students that it is okay to feel sad that she’s gone, happy that we got to know her, a mix of emotions, or feel nothing at all. The teachers and I asked the students to share some ideas of what they can do if they feel sad, encouraging them to think of their own coping mechanisms. Talking to a friend, recalling fond memories, drawing or writing feelings, and crying all your tears out were all suggested by the students. They are so wise.

As part of the mutual respect seen so frequently between students and teachers at Burgundy, I was also thankful to be able to share some of my own emotions about Ruby’s passing. Several of the teachers also shed tears and shared feelings. It is so valuable to our students that we can be open about our challenges and hard moments to model appropriate processing and expression of feelings. In addition to leading the Kindergarten classes in a small meditation, Elizabeth Nibley explained the importance of being mindful of others’ feelings and how to offer sympathy to those in need. She reminded them that Ruby dying was particularly difficult for me, as her caretaker, and the teachers agreed that the students could practice expressing sympathy by sharing a kind word with me as they left the meeting. I was personally touched by the sweet words and hugs, but also so impressed at the students’ ability to offer compassion. Even as adults, it can be hard to find the right words to say in times of sadness and we can all benefit from practicing mindfulness and understanding how to appropriately express sympathy.

In the spirit of engaging the whole child, I am so thankful that Burgundy believes in the ability to make any moment a teachable moment, including the hard lessons that become opportunities to teach critical social skills that will be used throughout our students’ lives. Our students, and we, are better for it.