How a Grief-stricken School Community Tries to Mourn, Heal, and Walk With Resolve

We held funeral services for one of our teachers three weeks ago. Carl Thomas Korpi was one of our most effective, engaging, and beloved educators in our school. He not only brilliantly taught our students chemistry, he taught our students about the doors that science could open for them and their communities.

Korpi was 28 years old.

Our students and staff are devastated. I am reeling. I go through episodes of crying to thinking it’s a dream. As I often do, I am using this space for my own therapy, but I am also hoping to share how a grief-stricken community attempts to mourn, heal, and walk together with resolve.

When we received the news, the leadership team began calling our staff. We didn’t want them to hear through social media nor did we want them to hear about it first thing in the morning. As hard as it was to make these phone calls, we knew an even more challenging task was looming. We followed up with an email.

Team,

I’m reaching out to share some devastating news.

Carl Korpi is in the hospital. There is not a lot of information right now and the doctors will have a better sense of how Korpi is doing over the next 48 hours. HR is in communication with Korpi’s family.

As this is extremely sensitive, please do not share anything with students. I will draft a letter by end of business tomorrow and speak to students directly. I will be available to talk to any members of our team tomorrow as well.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts and prayers for our colleague.

We struggled with how to tell our students.  We met with our social worker and leaders and developed a plan. We accessed resources to share with families. We decided to visit all of Mr. Korpi’s current and former students (10th-12 graders) and tell them in small groups.

It was searing to repeat the painful news so many times, but we knew we wanted to be the ones to share it, to see their faces, to use the small groups that their classrooms provided for room to have their own individual responses. We used the time to remind students that their feelings of sadness, anger, numbness, etc. were all normal and that people deal with shock in a variety of ways. It was hard balancing the privacy of the family, our hope that Mr. Korpi would recover, and students’ questions. Our eleventh grade team worked hard to support students during their other classes. It was never easy.

We had no idea at the time that we would need to revisit students and give them the news that Mr. Korpi died. We prepared to muster the strength to meet with students again.

We called our staff to a room to share this update and provide a space for those who needed to grieve as a community. Our social worker helped us to develop the common language to use with students around grief.

We then huddled to update our plan to share with the community. We would visit classrooms the next morning and share with students. We wanted to communicate in small groups, ensuring students had room to respond.  Our social worker had connected with social workers from across our district to come in to provide support to students and staff. We drafted a letter to families.

The next morning, students had already heard and rumors were swirling. It no longer seemed prudent to go from classroom to classroom, because social media was already spreading the news and we wanted to jump ahead. So, despite my reluctance to share such painful news in such a large group, we did. The students’ reaction was of pain and grief-stricken disbelief.

Students consoled each other and us. I lost count of how many students came to tell me they were checking up on me and other staff. Little did they know how much I needed every single hug and handshake they generously provided.

Students began memorializing Mr. Korpi by posting messages and pictures online, but also on the classroom door and window. The messages were of love, community, and grief. It was moving. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we kept working together to figure it out and improvise. This came in stages and we consulted with lots of students and staff to figure out the “right” way forward.

How We Learned to Move Forward

We continued to implement the plan to support our students—we’d use a different classroom for the rest of the year (This only works because it is the end of the year. Had it been earlier, we would have been forced to revisit this).

One thing that we noticed was how we needed to be flexible with time. While we are usually very time conscious, we knew that our community needed compassion, flexibility, and time. We had three days of outside counseling and we needed all three days.

The social workers gave us capacity to help far more students than we could have, we gave students space to grieve and process, later in the week, we helped students to reestablish their routines, we provided time and space for staff to use as they saw fit after students went home. Some staff wanted to talk in a circle, others just wanted quiet space to write, others grieved alone, or we covered their classes so that they could receive counseling.

Students wanted to host a Celebration of Life for their beloved teacher. Our students read poems, shared thoughts and memories, planted a tree, and deepened their connections as a community. Several students said this provided somewhat of a closure and several students remarked that it provided solace. One student said he didn’t sleep until after the service.

The thing that moved me most at the Celebration of Life was Korpi’s wife and mother being there for the students and telling them how loved and valued they were. Korpi’s parents told the students how much he spoke of them at home, how much he loved them, and how much he loved leading them. 

Mr. and Mrs Korpi, reminded us that Korpi’s legacy will continue. It will continue through the love of science he had, the passion he lived with, and the people he impacted. It hasn’t been a month yet, but I can see it already; students created a memorial on Korpi’s door, the Korpi family started a scholarship fund in Korpi’s name, and more students are strongly considering a major in science.

Our school community went into this with only book knowledge of what to do. We asked lots of folks for help and feel like we really went through this together with as much as we all had.

A community that loses a kind, humble, passionate leader is never quite the same. Korpi’s death is a devastating blow to our community. I know our students will honor Korpi’s life and lessons. We will be there with them every step of the way. We will keep getting up. Together. A little bolder. A little stronger.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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