What lesson plan would you want written in your memory by your school community?
That question was framed for me in the most recent of many losses of a school community member across my career. If you work as an educator, eventually you will lose a colleague or a student. Sometimes that loss comes unexpectedly and sometimes it’s drawn out through the agony of time. In either case the loss represents tragedy.
I talked with our leadership team yesterday about the loss of a younger generation music educator, Eric, killed in a car accident the evening that Thanksgiving break began. I asked two novice principals affected by this teacher’s loss to share what they had learned about leading as they supported their communities to process this loss.
The high school principal said that as they returned from break that opening the music room for kids and staff to drop in and talk with each other was critical. “More than anything else we simply needed each other. The teachers came to the room with our students almost as if it was the home where everyone gathers after the loss of a family member.” He described the quiet conversations of sharing that occasionally shifted to notes from the piano or voices lifting in song, capturing the spirit and spirituality of Eric, a remembering that allowed their common grief and railing at his loss to turn to celebration of his uncommon joy in being a member of two of our school communities.
The principal of the middle school where this music teacher also taught commented simply that she had learned as she called every single staff member how important it was for them to hear her voice as a personal medium for sharing Eric’s loss with each of them individually. They needed the timbre of her real voice — not an email or a voice message.
As these two principals spoke, I was reminded of a similar time when as a young principal my own school community lost a novice kindergarten teacher. More than anything in my career, leading a school community through that loss, and subsequently many others, taught me that principals are ultimately tribal leaders, looked to for their voices, care, guidance, and skill in bringing people together to make sense of and respond to the needs of the community as a whole and its members as individuals.
Death is a test of our school communities. It halts time. It presses us to remember that we are a gathering of people who feel loss communally — even when we didn’t know a person as well as another student or staff member did. Death teaches us that learning is truly about life and not about passing tests. It reminds us that what people take away from those we memorialize in our stories, eulogies, and music is emotional in tenor and social in context. As tears flow we push aside our hurried lives of covering content to connect with each other. We are reminded that what we think is the most important work we do may actually be the least important. That’s why in my district as we build our school communities for learners and learning, we prioritize building relationships first before we focus on creating relevance and rigor in the work our young people accomplish.
Relationships are foundational to all we do as educators. Last Sunday, Eric’s students described why he made a difference in their lives first as a caring adult and then as a music teacher. Who he was as a person mattered the most to them as they turned memories into narratives about their teacher.
“He would make waffles for our class at the end of the semester and when he found out I was gluten-free he made special waffles for me.”
“He always said hello in the hallways. If he knew you he wouldn’t just greet you by your first name. He always used your first and last name.”
“He would smile at everyone. He would wave at every one of us when he passed us in the halls.”
“When I lost my father, he helped me so much. He spent time with me to support me through that.”
“He was surprised that despite my outgoing personality, I was terrified to sing on stage. He worked with me to overcome that. Just before he died, I tried out for a solo and even though I knew I wouldn’t get it, I like that he got to see me do that.”
“He was funny. He wore funny ties and suits. He made class fun.”
“I learned so much from him and I will take those lessons with me for the rest of my life.”
“He inspired me to be a better singer but, most importantly, he inspired me to be a better person.”
Eric was one of those teachers who engaged the world around him through his love of hiking, apples, music, and people. As the winter concert service planned and shared by his young musicians and community peers unfolded last Sunday, we participated in a well-designed last lesson plan crafted carefully and purposefully by Eric.
He wasn’t physically on stage for his last concert but he was there in spirit and everyone had one more chance to participate in learning from and with Eric.
Teachers are lost but their teaching never dies, and in this there is immortality. When these children are old many of them will continue to recall what this man gave them at that vulnerable moment in their lives. Some, on their path to old age, will become teachers themselves, multiplying Eric and the work he did.
His music will play on.