Mason Elementary Teachers help students cope with loss of classmate

Evelina Gaivoronskaia | Staff Writer

Friday, January 8 was the last time 9-year-old JJ Day walked through his classroom doors at Mason Elementary School. Three days later on Monday, January 11, his teachers had to carry the weight of informing his classmates that JJ would not be walking through those same doors.

On Sunday, January 10, third grade teachers Kris Beck and Janelle Bishop received a call from Mason Elementary principal Javaris Powell. Day had passed away in his sleep of an unknown cause. Beck and Bishop were shocked to hear the news and, as Bishop described, “at first [they] just felt this deep loss. It was quite a struggle.” 

In shock and reeling from the news, Bishop’s first thought was “how are we going to take care of these kids?” She understood how hard it would be for third graders to process the situation. Bishop knew she had to do everything in her power to help the children to understand what had just happened and how the kids could express their emotions.

In order to aid them, Mason Elementary (ME) counselors Sara Kranson and Shannon Tipton were also on the line to ensure that the teachers would not handle the situation alone. The Mason District’s crisis team would be right alongside them, taking over students’ activities so that Bishop and Beck could focus on supporting the students emotionally.

Mason Intermediate counselor Michelle Krugh was in charge of developing the plan of actions for addressing the situation. Her main goal was to work with the ME counselors and enable them to be there for “any student to come and talk to [them]”.  

On Monday morning, after all plans had been developed, Beck and Bishop stood with their students as the counselors explained to them that their classmate had passed away. They introduced different strategies, like breathing and reading books about different emotions, that the teachers could use to help the kids cope. They also brought in therapy dogs, which they said the kids really enjoyed. 

Kranson admitted that the week she was with those kids was the hardest week in her whole career. She had to watch JJ’s close friends face his passing at too young of an age. It was “really hard to watch them go through that.”

She had never interacted with JJ one-on-one, but watching his friends and classmates talk about him “made [her] feel like [she] understood who JJ was and what an amazing kid he was.” 

On paper chains, posters, and in words, JJ was described as kind, enthusiastic, generous, thoughtful, and above all, happy. 

Tipton was grateful to help support the students because she also observed the caring the kids directed towards JJ and his family. As the kids made posters and paper chains with memories of JJ or just kind words, Tipton noted that “hearing the students talk about their classmate this way was actually a really beautiful thing” that came out of all of the grief she had observed that week.

As the counselors handled the classroom activities, both Beck and Bishop felt a responsibility to help their students. They felt like it was their duty to create a safe space for their grieving students, but they were also prepared by the counselors to see them express their pain in different ways. 

“We might see somebody just not saying anything,” Bishop said. “We might see tears. We might see somebody who’s not tearful, but they still feel so sad.” 

Regardless of the reaction, the teachers and counselors were prepared to comfort them in the best way possible. One of the activities they did with the kids included a coloring page where the kids could assign emotions to colors. The coloring helped students express their emotions while allowing teachers to see what their students were feeling. They could then send these pages home to parents to provide them a tool to generate further comfort and conversation with their children. 

While the students were the main focus, they were not alone in the need for support. Losing a face in the classroom is just as difficult for the teachers as well. Krugh said that the Mason City Schools community has always been a tightly-knit one and this situation was no exception.

All throughout the day, the staff would come by classrooms to check in on Beck and Bishop. But their help didn’t end when the last bell of the day rang. Krugh said that “they made sure that [the teachers] had meals, and made sure that they were okay at night.” Everybody understood that this grief would be a long process and they will have to help along the way. 

Both Beck and Bishop said that they are immensely grateful for the support that they received. Bishop said that “without all of the support, it would have been much harder to do it on our own.” 

Tipton knows that going through this tragedy will change her and the way she does her job forever. In the future, she will make sure that she is “responding in an appropriate way; not overstepping, but being there when [she] needs to be there.” She “felt really honored that they would trust [her] enough to come in and be a support system for the students.”

Kranson was also changed by this tragedy and said that this situation has taught her “compassion, empathy, putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes and asking what you can do for them to make them feel better.” Before everything else, she hopes that she was able to explain the situation to the kids in a way that helped them understand it, but also offered them support. 

Even though they are still teaching their students the same material in the same classrooms, Beck and Bishop’s lives will never be the same. While it will continue to take time to heal, they know that they will become more empathetic and try to understand their students’ feelings better, putting their emotions before academics and ‘loving like JJ’. 

“I’ve been taking more pictures in the classroom just to see their smiles and just to know that I have that in my phone now,” Bishop said. “I have that as a picture forever. I can print it off and I have that face smiling. We can’t take our days for granted. We have to be the best we can be every day. We have to do that for our kids.”

Photos by Evelina Gaivoronskaia