What happens when tragedy strikes at school?

Adi Bloom reports on the shock, grief and coping mechanisms adopted by teachers and pupils
11th June 2010, 1:00am


What happens when tragedy strikes at school?


On a Friday morning in March, Neil Blewett arrived early at school. He was, colleagues noted, particularly cheery that morning: he deliberately sought out a couple of pupils to congratulate them on recent sporting and musical achievements. On duty in the playground, he paused to upbraid a teenage boy who was sauntering into school in a hoodie. Then, catching sight of members of the hockey team, he called them over to wish them luck in a forthcoming fixture. When the bell sounded, he returned to his office and sent out a couple of emails to senior management about forthcoming end-of-term arrangements. Minutes later, he died.

Mr Blewett was still breathing when a sixth-former stopped by at his office and found him collapsed on the floor. The 56-year-old was a member of the senior management team at Portsmouth Grammar School, and had arranged to meet the pupil to discuss an aspect of prefect duties. The teenager opened the door to find his teacher apparently suffering some kind of fit.

The number of teachers who die in service is, proportionally, not huge: there were 448 in the 2008-09 academic year. However, for more than 400 schools a year, an awareness of mortality can - suddenly, and with no warning - become an untimetabled part of pupils' education.

Children and teenagers, who have, until that moment, been going about the business of classroom life, are forced to confront the unpalatable reality of classroom death.

"We tend to think that shock only results from car crashes," says Alison Thompson, manager of children's services for Cruse, the bereavement- counselling charity. "But it can come from seeing someone die.

"At puberty, strong emotions are very new and can be quite frightening. Teenagers have an adult's emotions, but don't have their experience or reserve to deal with those emotions. They are now aware of their own mortality. It can have a massive impact on pupils."

Often, this impact can be expressed in a manner that, to adult eyes, appears inappropriate. In February this year, at the Anglo European School in Ingatestone, Essex, dinner lady Gertie Brown was chatting to pupils over the lunchtime buffet trays when she suffered a heart attack. She was dead before she hit the ground.

"A couple of pupils thought she was joking," says deputy head David Barrs. "We had to make a snap decision: were they being disrespectful, or were they genuinely mistaken? Actually, they were mistaken. When they realised she wasn't joking, they were very, very upset. We had to pick them up afterwards and support them."

Such reactions, Mrs Thompson says, are not uncommon. "Giggling is classic, classic shock," she says. "It's disbelief. I've been to funerals where children have been bent double laughing.

"That kind of reaction can be lambasted by teachers. Older people say it's a disgrace. But shock protects us: it allows us to delay reality. So, if you castigate children, it can be damaging. The feelings of guilt can be massive afterwards. No one can make them feel as bad as they will make themselves feel."

At Portsmouth Grammar, the sixth-former who discovered Mr Blewett was actually remarkably collected. He immediately ran to the next-door classroom and asked the teacher for help. Between them, they then contacted the school doctor and called an ambulance.

"Of course, all those directly involved have since been asking themselves questions," says James Priory, the school's headteacher. "Were there any signs? Was there anything we could have done? It's very natural. But all the evidence was that he was on really good form."

This reaction, Mrs Thompson says, is one of guilt: "We berate ourselves when someone dies, particularly if it's a sudden death. We think, `If I'd only been at work 10 minutes earlier, if I'd only noticed heavy breathing, I could have stopped it.'"

Children, too, believe they might have had the power to prevent the death. But their understanding of this power veers into less rational territory. "If pupils were disruptive to that teacher the day before, or the hour before, they might think they caused the death," says Mrs Thompson. "That's not uncommon among children of different ages. They think they are omnipotent, that they can cause death through their actions."

She knows one boy, for example, who had refused to clean his bedroom not long before his mother was killed in a traffic accident. He subsequently spent two years convinced that he was responsible for the death. "If nobody challenges magical thinking, it can become ingrained," Mrs Thompson says. "It's not uncommon for young people to believe that they are unlucky, that they are a jinx. Although their rational mind later tells them they didn't cause the death, those feelings of guilt are still there. Emotionally, they feel responsible."

The bell had already sounded for break when the ambulance arrived at Portsmouth Grammar. It is not a large school: pupils were milling around the central quad when the paramedics entered the building. "In many ways, the act of bearing witness was helpful," says Mr Priory. "It meant that people were aware that something had happened; there was concern in the air. It made them far more reflective when the bad news came out a few hours later."

By the time Mr Priory arrived at his hospital bedside, Mr Blewett had been pronounced dead. "You know that no day is the same, of course," he says. "But one minute I was sitting in a meeting, discussing outreach and pupil support, and the next I was in the Queen Alexandra Hospital. That's not necessarily what you expect when you get up in the morning."

It was lunchtime when he returned to school, and he immediately called a senior-management meeting. For most headteachers in such situations, notifying fellow staff members is the first priority.

This was true for Ken Blake, head of Hamford Primary School in Walton-on- the-Naze, Essex. His Year 5 and 6 teacher, Simon Dann, had finished lessons on Friday afternoon as usual, before meeting a parent after school. Later that evening, Mr Blake had rung him to discuss a phone call from another parent.

But, on Sunday morning, Mr Blake received a telephone call from Mr Dann's family: the 44-year-old had died suddenly the previous day. "He cycled, he swam, he was a fit and healthy man," Mr Blake says. "Monday morning, I still expected him to walk through the door into school. I felt sure I had heard the message wrong."

Having notified only essential members of staff - the chair of governors, the deputy head, Mr Dann's teaching assistant and the school receptionist - over the weekend, Mr Blake called a staff meeting at 8am. "There was shock, disbelief, tears," he says. "People were stunned."

Often, schools will offer staff the opportunity to go home. Many, however, find it easier to remain at school. "Once you are in class, and getting on with day-to-day events, it takes your mind off things," says Mr Blake. "It's only in down-time - in breaks and after school - that there is a subdued feeling."

Mrs Thompson agrees that it is often helpful for everyone - staff and pupils - to discuss a sudden death. "It can be extremely difficult, but I would say not to hide emotions," she says. "I don't recommend opening the sluice gates in front of pupils, but share the grieving process. Set aside time to talk about the teacher who's died. If you bottle things up, pupils might pick up the belief that you shouldn't show grief. If you let them know you're sad, they can see it's natural to grieve."

"People deal with death in different ways," agrees David Barrs. "Children will learn from that. Girls can get hysterical, and some people say that's inappropriate. But it's no different from ululation in Africa, when a death occurs. What I say in assembly is that, whatever way people choose to deal with it should be respected."

Back at Portsmouth Grammar, significant numbers of pupils had witnessed the paramedics' arrival, so Mr Priory knew that it was vital to quell any rumours circulating. He cancelled lessons during the eighth period and, together with three senior management colleagues, addressed the four school houses separately.

"One of my particular weaknesses is that I'm a fairly sensitive person," he says. "I can easily be watching a concert or a play with a tear in my eye. And then I found myself making an announcement to Years 7 and 8, when only a few hours ago I had been at Neil's bedside. Maybe I shouldn't have put myself in that situation."

Mrs Thompson, however, argues that he should: talking openly about death also allows children to explore their own fears around the subject. This can be particularly important for younger pupils, whose way of understanding complex topics is to throw out successive volleys of questions: what happens to your heart when you have a heart attack? What happens to your brain when you die? Does a heart attack mean that someone ate lots of junk food?

"It's not that pupils are being insensitive," she says. "They are just being inquisitive. They want to know. That can help trigger their empathy, as well."

Tackling questions in the classroom can also help to avoid awkward situations elsewhere. At Hamford, Mr Blake organised a day on the beach to celebrate Mr Dann's life. Year 5 and 6 pupils released a succession of helium balloons in front of Mr Dann's family, and then spent the afternoon picnicking and playing rounders. "We made sure the children knew that his family was going to be there," says Mr Blake. "That way, they wouldn't come out with inappropriate comments: `What's it like to lose your husband?' It's about knowing that there is a place for certain things."

The death of a teacher can be particularly difficult for primary pupils for other reasons, too. "You're in loco parentis," says Mr Blake. "Children probably spend more waking hours with their teachers than with their own parents. Without losing a parent, it's the closest they get to having their consistency affected.

"With people living longer, most parents and grandparents are still around. So, for some children, this may be their first experience of losing somebody they know. You can't prepare them for that."

Very young children can struggle to comprehend the finality of death. "Should we leave sandwiches for him?" is a common graveside question. For others, the death of a teacher can be the first indication of their own mortality and that of those around them: many become very attached to their parents in the aftermath of a teacher's death.

"They don't want to go to school and leave their parents, in case they drop down dead," Mrs Thompson says. "After all, Sir died suddenly, and he was about the same age. The sense of security they've been afforded prior to the death is now threatened."

And it is not only their parents' health that worries them: where a teacher died of a brain tumour, for example, the slightest headache can lead to fears of their own death. But newly bereaved children tend to visit the doctor for other reasons, too.

"They might say, `I have a tummy-ache,'" says Mrs Thompson. "But it's actually confusion and guilt. These are emotional feelings, but they're being embodied."

Older pupils, meanwhile, seek out their own ways to make sense of events. In the immediate aftermath of Mr Blewett's death, Portsmouth Grammar staff and pupils collectively decided not to use the classroom immediately outside his office.

Such superstitious fear of the location of death dates back to the Victorians: it is easier to link death to a specific place or object than to confront its arbitrariness. "They don't want to go there, in case they are hurt or injured or they die," Mrs Thompson says. "People hope that if you ignore death, it will go away."

Neil Blewett had been renowned as a stickler for correct uniform. In the days after his death, this role was taken over by the prefect body. "Do it for Blewett" became their playground mantra, as they exhorted pupils to tuck shirts in or take hoodies off.

"He was a father figure, an avuncular figure, an authoritative figure," says Mr Priory. "Not many pupils didn't catch his eye or engage with him in some way.

"But his maths classes felt particularly close to him. There was a shared enterprise of doing it together. So now they will be going into their GCSEs, looking to do well, to prove him right: to do it for Blewett."

Self-imposed pressure is a common coping mechanism, Mrs Thompson says. However, staff should watch out for pupils who become obsessive in their behaviour. "A young person might be bargaining, petitioning a deity or higher order to make things right, to reverse the death" she says. "It probably won't be voiced, but you will see them upping their academic prowess, or going hell for leather on the sports field.

"If a child is throwing themselves into academic pursuits, so that it's all consuming, a teacher might step in and check everything's OK. The child might say, `Well, Sir would want me to,' and then you can open up dialogue there."

Schools can also offer more immediate opportunities to pay tribute. Mr Barrs, at the Anglo European School, held a memorial assembly, inviting pupils and staff to contribute any reflections they had about Mrs Brown. This was followed by a period of silent contemplation.

At Hamford, Mr Blake set up a floral tribute to Mr Dann in the school corridor. And pupils tied ribbons in school colours around fence posts, creating a small shrine. "I'm not one for that sort of sentimentality," Mr Blake says. "But that's how the children wanted to express themselves.

"Some children get very upset immediately. And some will appear to be fine on the surface. Then, weeks later, out of the blue, they'll say, `I miss Mr Dann.' You never know what's going on inside a child's head."

At Portsmouth Grammar, Mr Priory opened a condolence book in the school reception. This was matched by an "RIP Mr Blewett" Facebook page, where pupils posted tributes and memories. A Just Giving webpage quickly raised more than pound;6,000 for a school bursary in Mr Blewett's name.

And, slowly, gradually, things began to return to normal. Eventually, pupils suggested that they might use the classroom next to Mr Blewett's office again. The teachers covering his maths lessons made progress with the curriculum. The numbers of pupils approaching the school counsellor, which had peaked in the days following the death, eventually dropped to more usual levels.

Small changes, however, remained. After sporting events, and at the end of term, pupils have been particularly assiduous about thanking the members of staff who worked with them.

"It's made them aware of mortality," Mr Priory says. "They are aware of the value of people giving up their time for them. They are expressing their appreciation for somebody. It would be silly to pretend that things have entirely settled for any of us."

What to do when a member of staff dies

  • Inform all other members of school staff about the death as soon as possible.
  • Arrange for staff to meet at the end of the day, to discuss ways to support each other and their pupils.
  • Call a full-school assembly, and explain the death in an appropriate and honest manner.
  • Reassure pupils that, should they want to talk about the death, there will be time to do so.
  • If there are any pupils who have been particularly affected by the news, speak to their families, to ensure they are supported at home.
  • Allow pupils to take time out of lessons to talk about their reactions to the death.
  • Open a book of remembrance or hold a memorial service, to allow staff and pupils to pay tribute to the teacher who has died.
  • Monitor pupils for any signs of distress, fear or unease.

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