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The Key to Effective Leadership: Lessons from a Classroom Tragedy

The Email

It was a typical Sunday afternoon—calm, quiet, and the perfect time to catch up on some emails that had piled up over the weekend. As a university professor, weekends are often just brief pauses in the ceaseless flow of academic responsibilities. 

Then, an email from the university president caught my eye, its subject line stark and foreboding. I felt a sudden tightness in my chest, the kind that precedes news you know will be bad. The email was brief. And its message hit hard: a student had tragically passed away the night before. The student was from my marketing class.

Shock and Silence

For a moment, time seemed to stop. I read the name again, disbelief clouding my thoughts. My heart sank as the reality set in. This wasn’t just any student; it was someone whose hopes and dreams I had been a part of, whose progress I had watched over the semester. The silence in the room was deafening, punctuated only by the quiet hum of the computer.

Tears welled up as I stared at the screen, the name in the email blurring as the tears spilled over. My first thought was painfully clear: somewhere, parents had just lost their child. This wasn’t just a name in an email; it was a life that had ended too soon, a story left unfinished.

A Mother’s Empathy

As a mother, I felt a deep, visceral reaction to the news. It’s a kind of empathy that transcends professional boundaries—the shared, unspoken bond of parenthood that makes any child’s pain your own. 

I needed to hold my daughters, to feel their warmth and reassure myself of their safety. I found them in the living room, just hanging out with their weekend activities, and without a word, I pulled them into a tight embrace, feeling the fragility of life.

Their confusion quickly turned to concern as they hugged me back, and when I finally managed to speak through my tears, explaining the loss of my student, they too began to cry. It was a profound moment of shared sorrow, reflecting the collective empathy that binds us as a family.

mother holding daughter
I pulled them into a tight embrace, feeling the fragility of life.

Teaching as a Form of Motherhood

I’ve been teaching for 18 years, and each year adds depth to my understanding of the impact a teacher can have. Teaching is not just about imparting knowledge; it’s about nurturing young minds, guiding them through challenges, and celebrating their achievements as if they were your own children. 

This sense of responsibility grows when you’re a parent. Suddenly, every student’s struggle is more poignant, every success more joyful.

This transformation began when I became a mother. It sharpened my senses and heightened my empathy. I found myself more attuned to the students' needs, not just academically, but emotionally and socially. 

My classrooms became communities where students learned to support each other, to build connections that went beyond the academic year.

Building a Community with Cookies

One of my favorite traditions is baking chocolate chip cookies for my students at the end of each semester. It started as a small gesture, a way to celebrate their hard work and create a warm, inviting atmosphere during finals. 

Over the years, it has grown into something much more significant. These cookies have become a symbol of care and community, a sweet reminder that education is enriched by kindness and compassion.

The ritual of sharing cookies has brought smiles and created moments of joy amid the stresses of college life. It’s a tradition that students look forward to, and for me, it’s a way to show them that I care about more than just their grades—I care about their well-being.

The loss of my student was a reminder of the role I play in these young adults' lives. At the celebration of life, I spoke about the community we had built in our classroom. I talked about the cookies, the laughter, and the lessons we shared. Looking into the faces of the student’s family and friends, I felt a deep sense of purpose. 

This tragedy, though heart-wrenching, reinforced my commitment to teaching and motherhood. It underscored the importance of empathy, compassion, and community—values that I strive to embody both in and out of the classroom.

Integrating Personal Vulnerability into Teaching

In my years as an educator, embracing vulnerability has transformed my teaching, making the classroom an environment where genuine interaction and meaningful learning occur. The day I received that heart-wrenching email was a poignant reminder of why showing my true self is crucial—not only for my own healing but also for the impact it has on my students.

Sharing my personal reactions to the tragedy with my students wasn’t easy. The next time we met, I stood before them, not just as their professor, but as a person deeply affected by the loss of someone I cared about in our community. I shared my sorrow openly, letting them see the tears and the struggle behind maintaining composure. This wasn’t typical of our usual interactions, where the focus is often strictly academic.  In that moment, I was raw, real, and vulnerable.

This openness led to a shift in the dynamics of our class. It broke down the invisible barrier that often exists between students and their teachers. My students responded to this openness with their own stories of loss and challenge, turning our classroom into a space where we could all share and support each other. We were no longer just a professor and students; we were individuals navigating the complexities of life together.

I shared my sorrow openly, letting them see the tears and the struggle behind maintaining composure

Through this shared vulnerability, students learned a valuable lesson that day—one that no textbook could have taught. They learned about the strength that comes from being vulnerable, the courage it takes to show one's true emotions, and the communal healing that can happen when people open up to each other. They saw firsthand how vulnerability can lead to empowerment, how sharing one's true self can inspire others to do the same.

The Lasting Impact of Vulnerability in Education

The lessons from that day went beyond academic learning. They were about life, resilience, and the human spirit. As the semester progressed, I noticed a change in my students. They were more engaged, more empathetic with each other, and more willing to participate in discussions about issues that affect us as human beings.

By the end of the course, our classroom had become a community. The students had formed bonds that lasted well beyond their time at university. And as for me, I learned that being a leader doesn’t always mean having all the answers or shielding your emotions. Sometimes, being a leader means showing your students how to face life’s challenges with honesty and openness.

This experience solidified my belief in the power of vulnerability within education. It taught me that when educators share their knowledge AND also their human experiences, they can truly inspire and lead. This approach doesn’t weaken our authority; rather, it strengthens the connections we build and the impact we have on our students’ lives.

A Commitment to Growth and Empathy

As Dr. Christiane Schroeter, I wear many hats: educator, business and wellness coach, and leader of a Mastermind Collective for female entrepreneurs. Each role allows me to blend my academic expertise with my personal experiences, offering a unique perspective that supports and empowers women, especially mothers, in their professional and personal lives.

My journey has taught me the power of empathy and the importance of community. In leadership these are lessons I pass on to my students, my daughters, and the members of my Mastermind Collective. Together, we face challenges, celebrate victories, and learn from each other.

“A strong woman stands up for herself; a stronger woman stands up for others.” This saying guides my actions and aspirations. In sharing my story, I aim to stand up for those who may feel alone in their struggles, providing a voice and a space for growth and connection.

My journey has taught me the power of empathy and the importance of community.

We’ll laugh together, cry together, and most importantly, learn together. And through it all, I hope we can grow together—stronger, wiser, and more connected than ever.


Meet the expert:

Dr. Christiane Schroeter with Her Nation Magazine
Dr. Christiane Schroeter | Business & Wellness Coach

Dr. Christiane Schroeter is a Business & Wellness Coach known for her European flair. She helps women improve their health and confidence so they can show up for their life & business differently. Christiane has a Ph.D. in Health Economics and teaches Marketing, Innovation & Entrepreneurship.

Dive deeper into her wealth of knowledge:



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