'The thing I found most difficult as a headteacher was the aftermath of a death in the school community'

2nd November 2015 at 19:06
Grief is tough, writes one senior educationist and former head, and so is leading a grieving school

I’m bad at dealing with grief. I can’t sing hymns at funerals. I find it difficult to talk about someone who has just died without choking up. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the thing I found most difficult as a headteacher was dealing with the aftermath of the deaths of three members of staff and one pupil.

Like many teachers and school leaders, I am thinking a lot about the principal of Cults Academy in Aberdeen, Anna Muirhead, and her staff, and the job they will have to do in the coming days and weeks.

No teacher training and no headship-preparation courses prepare one for this. Yet a thousand young people are looking to the head and staff to explain the inexplicable and comfort the grieving. Of course, they will be supported by people in the local community with specific skills in these circumstances, but this does not remove the responsibility of leadership.

As a headteacher, I found that I had to deal with my own shock and grief at the deaths in my school, support pupils and staff and, at the same time, lead the school community through what I call "institutional grief", which is different from individual grief and can only be addressed collectively.

Whatever your own feelings and however good or bad your coping strategies, the head cannot escape the responsibility of visibly leading the school through this time.

At the time of the first death during my headship, I had no idea what to say in the assembly that would need to be held to deal with the institutional grief. I knew only that so many people were asking the question “why?” – a question to which I had no adequate answer.

So I went to see the person with the most experience of speaking publicly about death – the local vicar – and he guided me on what I should say. There is, he said, no explanation of what has happened, no logic, no apportionment of a fair lifespan. We talked about the quality of life and the impact that people make on others. He reminded me about Pope John Paul I, who died in 1978 after just 33 days as pope, but who had made changes in that time that had a profound effect thereafter. Thus armed, I prepared my assembly, wrote it out in full and read it over until I knew it almost by heart. But I was still filled with trepidation as I entered the school hall.

I got through it – just – and then went up to my office, locked the door and burst into tears.

They don’t tell you about days like that on headship-training courses.

John Dunford is a former general secretary of school leaders’ union ASCL


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