Sure, you hear about the classroom community. Kids help each other out, share, and play together. But what happens when the stakes are higher? I found out with my fourth-graders two years ago.

SUMMER SCHOOL: This article is part of an ongoing series in which area teachers weigh in on the big challenges facing education.

She was here one day and not the next. Bree went on vacation, came back for a day, and then didn’t return for the rest of the year. She was in the hospital with a rare illness that the doctors were just learning about. It was devastating and a time of the unknown. Nobody knew what was wrong with her, how to help, or if she’d ever come back to school. It was a heartbreaking moment that brought all my students together.

Every day they asked questions. I tried my best to explain Bree’s situation in a way the kids could understand. “She is sick and in the hospital. The doctors are doing everything to help her, and she is where she needs to be right now,” I would say. Not very informative, but it provided enough comfort to get us all through the day.

I would classify this as the most difficult year of my 11-year career so far, but it was also the most eye-opening. After a long week of questions and vague answers, the students decided to take things into their own hands. Knowing how lonely and scared Bree was, they wanted to cheer her up.

I invited the kids to join me during lunch hours, after they finished eating. They spent their beloved recess time putting together cards to tell how much they were thinking of her and wrote down their favorite jokes for her in a carefully decorated book. They created original skits and songs and videotaped themselves performing them. Even kids who didn’t consider themselves great “friends” with Bree gave up some of their time to make her feel better. I emailed these to her mom so Bree would feel like she was at school with us.

The culmination of this kindness came at the end-of-the-year picnic. Bree was able to join us for lunch that day but I wanted it to be a surprise, so I purposely didn’t tell the kids. When she pulled up and they started to recognize her car, their faces just lit up. They yelled her name and ran to greet her. Although she was only able to stay with us for a few minutes, it meant the world to her to know she was not forgotten.

This experience demonstrates something that only those in the field of education understand, but that everyone needs to know and support. Teachers do far more than teach reading, writing, and math. We take on many different roles. At times we are mothers and fathers, nurses, and protectors. At other times, we are a source of comfort or the children when they are away from home.

Building a welcoming and positive relationship with our students is essential. We start each day with class meetings to make sure everyone is feeling good and ready to learn. Throughout the school year, through a variety of social emotional activities, we develop a relationship with our students that make us feel like a family. And just like a family, it’s the challenges and obstacles we overcome together that illuminate just how strong we are.

Robin Rickert is a fourth-grade teacher at Jackson School in Elmhurst. The Illinois Writing Project is the Sun-Times partner for the teacher essay series. The essays reflect the views of the individual writers only.