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MSU teaching assistants struggle to manage their grief, their students needs

March 31, 2023
Teaching assistant and German studies masters Olivia Guy lectures her GRM 201 class on Thursday, March 30, 2023. Like other TA’s, Guy struggled with returning to the classroom after the shooting on MSU’s campus on Monday, February 13, 2023.
Teaching assistant and German studies masters Olivia Guy lectures her GRM 201 class on Thursday, March 30, 2023. Like other TA’s, Guy struggled with returning to the classroom after the shooting on MSU’s campus on Monday, February 13, 2023.

German studies teaching assistant Olivia Guy said the initial return to teaching after the Feb. 13 mass shooting on campus was especially difficult to navigate.

She felt unsure how to proceed with her classroom full of students. She attended a class as a student before returning as a teacher, which gave her an example of how she might lead her classroom, but she still struggled.

Teaching assistants, or TAs, must grieve as students while also managing classrooms filled with other grieving students.

As Michigan State University inches toward normalcy, some TAs find leading the classroom and acting as instructors more challenging. Guy said she didn't know what to say to her students. 

“Do I talk about what happened, or do we try not to?” Guy said. “Then also deciding what to do with the lesson plans because we had to change those, of course.”

Guy said coming back to school as both a graduate student and a TA presented further conflict. She was told, as a teacher, to lighten coursework and move due dates, but her not all of her classes as a student presented her that opportunity — which created more confusion for her.

“Kind of felt like the same things weren’t extended both ways," Guy said. “I still have a master’s project and for that I felt like... 'Okay, you had your week, now back to work like normal.'"

Geological sciences TA Connor Drooff said the responsibility to create a community in the classroom after experiencing a tragedy in the workplace added pressure to his job. 

“You’re dealing with this decreased sense of safety and you’re also trying to process it and you have to communicate with people,” Drooff said. “It’s tricky.”

Drooff attended a Zoom meeting for support with other TAs to discuss how to proceed in the classroom, but he said finding a balance between grieving and moving forward was still difficult.

“It was weird because it was a Zoom session, so already there’s kind of this removal,” Drooff said. “I felt still quite unprepared afterwards because I was still kind of coming to terms with my feelings.”

The flexibility of Drooff's supervisor has been key as he copes. He said having a voice in discussions about coursework and handling the classroom is helpful. In addition to talking with his supervisor, Drooff said his girlfriend has also been a great support.

Guy said she’s been more intentional about setting time aside for herself and to see friends so she can get away from work and cope. 

As the end of the semester approaches, both Guy and Drooff said they’ve noticed more students have a desire to return to normal. 

While there is still a divide on campus about this, things are naturally transitioning, Guy said.

However, Drooff said as things become more normal, he is concerned for the future.

“I get the whole sense for normalcy and I want it too, but I think there's something deeply abnormal about this whole thing,” Drooff said. “I just hope that we aren't generally desensitized to it and think that it's okay for this to happen.”

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