Tonight I got the human side of teaching right.

Here is what I know for sure.  There is someone, most likely a teacher, out there – most likely I don’t know you that needs to hear what I will say in this post. So I will say what I usually only say to my close peers out loud.  To whoever you are, you are amazing.  Thanks for all you do and if you are in grief, there are people caring for you from afar you do not know about  – even years later.

A bit of background about me: In my district, Minneapolis, and in my state, Minnesota I am very well known in the math education community.  I’ve worked in the same district for 25 years (20 teaching and 5 in leadership).  My journey started in HS, then a K-8, district, 6-8 and again for 1 year HS.  I currently lead our state MCTM organization.  I am an introvert who is comfortable with the fact that others see me as the opposite professionally.  I have lots to learn, but many assume I know a lot.  In person I will answer any question you ask.  I’m trying to be as honest on my blog, but my assumption I am like many of you and I get it right some days and get it wrong other days in the classroom.

Side note:  A current favorite help for me as a classroom teacher and a leader is this one of every shot Kobe Bryant ever made.   He is considered great and he made a lot of shots and missed a lot.  He was balanced around the field.  That is who I want to be as a teacher and leader.  Some days I will get it right and other days not.  (Balance is another post someday) For you Bball geeks, this visual is interactive HERE.


This post is not about teachers (just me) or math – but instead about the students and families we teach. It is about the community that keeps many of us in teaching.  It is the human side that is as important as my math side, though I usually talk about math publicly and the human side to those that know me best or often those I mentor.  Yesterday and tonight I trusted my gut and was in tears and caused another to cry – but I know it is all good.

If you’ve only taught HS and not MS, at least this is my truth in an urban school district (7 HS’s, 30 middle grade programs – K-8, 6-8 & more and ton K-5’s, alternative schools etc), one of the big differences is the community and families you know in MS.  I thought I knew families at my HS, but at a K-8 and later 6-8, I knew the names of most and faces of most of my students siblings and parents.  The K-8 I worked at had only 6 teachers teaching MS – not math teachers, teachers which was very different from a HS math department of 10-20 teachers.  I knew the names of every middle grade student, even if I had not taught them yet.  If you teach MS or Elementary, you know this.  If you live/work in rural or smaller schools, your truth is something I did not know yet when I taught HS for 13 years.


10 years ago I taught a student who committed suicide in his early 20’s last summer.  My friend texted me a day or two after it happened as I had not worked at this school in 9 years.  I taught his brother and had them both in my math class and advisory.  I knew his mom and several other people in his life.  His mom is relatively well known in Minneapolis for the business she is in.  When he committed suicide his family (mother/aunts….) did not hide the fact that he committed suicide and wrote a beautiful obituary in my cities large news paper.  Because his mom was good at her profession, a local paper wrote other articles about his death and had quotes from his mom and family about his suicide and also lovely things they loved about him.

I have been blessed to personally have very little family or friends die (my grandparents have all died in their 90’s) but I have close people in my life I’ve walked with as they’ve experienced grief.  In my 25 years of teaching I’ve lost many students either when I taught them or to violence, accidents or sickness or….I’ve had students who lost parents when I taught them, had coworkers die…..and more.  I don’t have children, so I can not know the grief of my student’s mother.

In the last 10 years I’ve run into his mother in the city maybe 1 time a year randomly.  (as I do with other MS families and students I taught).  When my student committed suicide last summer I  did something right that as a newer teacher at age 22 I would have had had no idea what to say or do, with no personal experience with grief.  There was no google to figure it out for the first half of my career.  As an introvert I either had to figure it on my own or be bold and ask others.  I’ve done both.

Having walked through grief with others here is what I’ve figured out so far in my 25 years in the game.  I am saying this out loud for someone who is in their first year or 3rd year so you can know my truth.  I am just a teacher leader.  (I am not a grief expert and will not claim to be, someone reading this is)

  • I don’t worry anymore about what to say to someone in grief.  I just say something.
  • Early on (first week or month(s)) they will not remember what I say anyways.
  • I will always if there is an obituary in our paper and I know about write a comment – even if I think  or assume that they don’t remember me.   I try and share memories when I do this (quick), but again, it does not matter what I say.
  • If I know about a death and can, I will go to the funeral or wake if I can.
  • I don’t worry anymore if I can’t connect early on.   There are lots of people early on.  Grief lasts a long time and if I say something 6 months later, 1 year, 2 years, 10 years later the time is usually right….I’ve always heard years later thank you.
  • I may write a note.
  • I try and make myself say something out loud to people, again even if I assume they don’t remember me.  They usually do.  (and even though this is not my preferred communication method, I do it anyway)
  • I have learned to trust my gut.  If my gut says say something I try and do that.  If my gut says email, I do….etc.
  • I can usually only hear my gut when my work and school life is in balance.
  • My work/school life has been out of balance at least 4 times in 25 years.  Most people who knew me did not see it, but those who know me best knew.  I had to learn the lesson 4 times (maybe more).  For the last 1.5 years I’ve bdownloadeen back in balance and I could hear my gut with this mother, so I followed it today.
  • I don’t beat myself up if I am out of balance or say the wrong thing.  This quote had guided me in my classroom, leadership and more.  (Thanks Maya).
  • Teachers beat themselves all the time.  We work at the edge of what we can bear most of our career. If something goes well or wrong, just one thing, we tend to crash.  Our jobs are tough.

What I got right today:

When my student committed suicide last summer, I commented online in the obituary.  I mentioned a memory of him.  I knew I had a photo of him somewhere – but that was 10 years ago and I had worked at 3 other locations since.  I knew his family was in pain.  I knew though that there are many around you initially.  I knew there would be a time I could connect with this student’s family.

Yesterday, 10 years after I taught this student and one year after he died, I found the picture of him I mentioned online.  This is before my cell phone had a camera, so I must have had my camera at school.  It was 8.5 x 11.  In addition I found 2 class photos (my homeroom) of this student.  My gut said, bring these to his mom and brother.  Go to her business and drop these off with a note – even if she is not there, you know her employees will get it to her.  Even if I don’t think she knows me well.  She is a mother and I taught and knew her son for a part of his life.

I knew if I did not deliver it in 24 hours, the busyness of the start of school would delay me (and I may not do it) so after meeting with a 4th year teacher today and visiting my family, I wrote a 2 page note and attached it to the 3 photos and drove to her place of business.  When I walked in, I asked if his mother was there, she was.  I handed her the envelope and  out loud said a few words to her.  I was prepared to turn around and give her space.  She thanked me and we talked for 30 minutes in the lobby of her place of business.  Both of us were in tears for part of this time.  Here grief was still fresh a year later.  Of course it was.  She was his mother.

I was so happy my introvert self followed my gut and did what another quiet voice tries to talk me out of.    I am so glad I did not worry about the fact that I know little about suicide.  I am so glad my life was in balance so I could connect with her.  She needed to talk out loud to someone she knew a little (she claimed to think of me every day) was impacted by her son.  (I was impacted so much by her son, described at the end of this post) This mother is well known, I assume she intellectually gets this, and has little idea that there are tons of people who were impacted by her and her son – more than her family and friends that celebrated my student’s life. She alluded to this in our conversation.

I ignore my gut or can’t hear my gut many times.  Today though I got it right.  As we talked out of the corner of my eye there was another person listening to us, the employee of this mother.  After the mother left to work, I saw the person and she said, I was your student too at the same school.  She was lovely and in her 20’s.  She sat and quietly watched us.  She said amazing things to her boss and me about this student.

If you know someone in grief.  Say something.  Do something.  Don’t worry if it the right or wrong thing.  Grief is a journey.  Say something, even if you think people don’t know you (they usually do).  I wish someone had told me this in my 20’s (perhaps they did and I was not ready for it yet).  I am OK with my journey and my truth.  I have more to learn about my students, my peers and grief.  I say this out loud for those teachers who were me me in my 20’s or I am not sure who else.

A personal post-script:

My teacher truth…this is how this student impacted me 10 years ago and I still remember him today. As a 7th grade student I could not figure out how to reach him.  He seem haunted even then.  Because he was one of 25 students in my homeroom and math class, I worked with his family and other teachers. I sometimes got frustrated at him for his disengagement.  Looking back and what I know now, this was not his fault.  I was tired.  I got it right a few days with him.  One reason I had this photo 8.5×11 and still had it was this.  In April, during MN’s state math testing, I stopped teaching math for 2-3 days and just played.  I had 10-15 Connect 4 boards and held a tournament with my middle schoolers.  They loved it.  I had brackets in each class.  I then had the winners of each class play each other and each year named a grand champion.  I did this because Connect 4 is an equalizer for students – many can do well and those who don’t usually don’t care to o much.  Testing should be combined with play.

The student who committed suicide 9 years later was my 1st hour math class/homeroom winner.  He went on to win against the other class winners.  When he won.  20 students hoisted him on his shoulders and it was one of the few times I caught him unguarded and smiling.  Some students who had not really seen him before (he was quiet and I now see he was hiding) saw him that day.  He was brilliant.  I knew this, but I saw it again that day.  It reminded me that some students do not thrive in what we can offer in our public schools.  It reminded me – AGAIN – that I need to do things that are silly or artsy or …..to honor the students who need it.  I knew this, but I forgot. I made the photo to celebrate him in my room but it was really there for me as a reminder to me to keep developing skills to see all my students and keep pursuing why they are not engaged.

I can do things differently.  I don’t beat myself up for who I don’t reach or the students who think I don’t see them.  We all have too many students and I just celebrate who I do reach.  We all don’t know who we reach and never know about.  I was one of 6 teachers.  The other 5 were working as hard or harder than I was.  We were a community.  Our students need us.  We need their families.

When I returned to teaching 3 years ago.  I still had this student in my mind.  I wish I could use his name, because one private mantra I have for myself, is How will I see more ‘my student’s name’?

Here is what else I know for sure.  Every teacher I know cares deeply about students – more than I do often.  I have learned from my peers at every school.  There are too many teachers to name.  I am not the expert.  I simply am saying out loud what many are too busy to do because they too are right now loving students, families and their peers.  Thank you to you.

To this student and my peers in Minneapolis.  You may not think I notice many of you.  I do.  You inspire me.  I see you.  I care about you.  We are a community.  We all get things right some days and at times we mess up.  When we know better, we do better.

I challenge all of you to learn from me and not have 4 times in your career that you are out of balance.  If your emotional, personal, work, family life is out of balance.  Do something. If I know you, please contact me. I have some emotional space to give right now.  I also am really good at saying no and setting boundaries for now.




Sara VanDerWerf

I am Sara Van Der Werf, a 24-year mathematics teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools. I have taught math in grades 7-12 as well as spent several years leading mathematics at the district office. I currently teach Advanced Algebra at South High School and I'm also the current President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM). I am passionate about encouraging and connecting with mathematics teachers. I'd love to connect via twitter.  Join the community.  Tweet me @saravdwerf.

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