The Empty Desk: When to Move On After Tragedy

By Community Manager posted 03-01-2022 09:47 AM



Several years ago on a Tuesday night, I received a phone call that would forever change the way I teach. My department chair, Mrs. Karnes (names are changed), called to let me know Alexander was killed in a motorcycle accident. Mrs. Karnes was aware I had known Alex as a student since before his freshman year, and now he was a senior. Mrs. Karnes advised me that, in the morning, my classroom would be the place for students to gather to begin the mourning and grieving process. Well before the first hour of the day, dozens of students that I had in class, as well as others who were friends of Alexander, had come to my classroom to cry, wonder, and try to figure out how they would deal with this trauma. My principal, Mr. Bryce, stopped me to see how I was doing.  He then told me the following: I could pray with the kids (he knew I was a man of faith and that this is not usually done in a public school in a large metropolitan area), I could hug the kids and let them cry, but I was not to cry. It was one of the toughest days I’ve ever had as a teacher, and I remember having a good cry when I got home that night, as I had cared for Alex very much and knew my classroom would not be the same without him.

In my 40 years of teaching, I have lost students to motorcycle and car accidents, cancer and other illnesses, and suicide. The challenge is always in knowing how to grieve with the students and when to move on. I came to understand, at times, that the worst thing I could have done as a high school English teacher, or university professor, was to open to Chapter 3 of our textbook and cover the planned material. Fortunately, however, the day also would come when the best thing I could do was to open to Chapter 3 of our textbook and cover the planned material.

I’ve worked with preservice teachers for the past 20 years and, in almost every one of those years, my students and I have had to deal with a death. It may have been a student in one of my classes, a colleague or student from my school who was a friend of my students, or a family member of a student. Although death is a topic young people are not typically comfortable with, it is one that preservice teachers need to begin thinking about so they can be prepared when they experience it in their own classrooms. I have long maintained, and have shared with my students, “If you are in the classroom long enough, this is something you will experience.” For preservice teachers, having a plan in place is just as important as that classroom management plan they develop in their methods classes.

The following suggestions may help both new and experienced teachers when dealing with trauma and tragedy that may occur in their classroom community:

  • Allow the students to express their feelings. Author of young adult literature Chris Crutcher maintains that it’s important for students to be able to share how they feel when dealing with tragedy, even if they have little experience in doing so (Goodson, 2019). This can be a relatively new experience for novice teachers, and it probably is for the students in the classroom, too. Allow students to express their feelings and try to process what it means to them.
  • Cry privately and be strong for the students. I didn’t understand at the time what my principal meant when he told me not to cry in front of the students, as I knew it would be tough to deal with Alexander’s empty desk in my classroom. I now know it was important for the students to see me as someone they could rely on to be strong and even to share my faith with them as an appropriate measure of response. Taking care of your own grief and managing your mental health are keys in giving you the strength to do the same for your students (Vereen, 2020).
  • Know it is okay not to cover the content for a day, or two, or even three. We all love our content areas and love preparing engaging lessons for our students, but sometimes the best thing we can do is to not cover that day’s plan. You can express your humanity to the students and show respect to the lost classmate or family member. Spend a few days of talking about loss and other issues.
  • Recognize when it is time to move on. Avoid phrases like “Jimmy would want us to get on with our lives,” as that can be condescending to the victim. There is no obvious time to know when to proceed, but even after national disasters like the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the events of 9/11/2001, there was a time for grief and a time to get on with the business of living (Ellison et al., 2019).

Dealing with the death of a student is never easy, whether you are a novice teacher or a veteran of 39 years in the classroom. There also is more than one way to handle the classroom situation when you, or your students, experience death, trauma, or tragedy firsthand. Having a plan in place is essential for all teachers to begin the process of allowing students (and yourselves) to grieve and deal with the loss, while preparing for the day when it’s time to open Chapter 3 of your textbook and teach the lesson for the rest of the students. 

By Paul L. Danuser

Dr. Danuser teaches in the College of Education at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona. Danuser taught in the K–12 system for 27 years before moving exclusively into higher education and teacher-preparation programs. He is passionate about the classroom and building strong relationships.


Ellison, D. W., Walton-Fisette, J. L., & Eckert, K. (2019). Utilizing the teaching personal and social responsibility (TPSR) model as a trauma-informed practice tool in physical education. JOPERD: The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 90(9), 32–37.

Goodson, L. (2019). Author Chris Crutcher: Speaking out on teachers’ role in aiding children of trauma. Educational Considerations, 44(2), Article 7.

Vereen, C. J. (2020). “Raining” in your emotions as a student affairs professional. The Vermont Connection, 41(1).