A time to grieve: the death of a teacher;Management amp; Finance;Update

12th November 1999 at 00:00
As principal of an Australian primary school, John Renowden had to lead it through the loss of a popular teacher who suffered a stroke and, after a brief illness, died. Here, he offers helpful advice for colleagues worldwide who might confront a similar tragedy.

The loss of a teacher has a wide-ranging impact and demands very sensitive management wherever and whenever it occurs.

If a serious illness or accident occurs recognise that it may result in the death of the person concerned. Admission to an intensive care unit is a valid indicator for a principal of a school to set in motion certain procedures. Get accurate medical information from the outset from a family source.

You should also establish regular communication sessions with all staff, for example at 8.40am and 3.40pm. These may be brief, but should occur as they often prevent many queries during the day - also try to get a health update shortly before these briefings (a family member will not mind these two calls each day). Convey all information to staff and interested parents. Do not hide or cover any information.

* Establish similar clear communication lines with parents in the community. A personal letter to all parents in the ill teacher's class is a good idea. This should prevent rumours and ill-informed information from circulating.

* Establish a caring, understanding, communicative environment with pupils, particularly in the class where the crisis is focused. Engage professional counselling help for staff and children as soon as you become aware of a possible crisis.

* Inform the regional general manager (in Australia each region has a general manager)that a crisis brewing. Be humble, seek advice, and network with trusted colleagues. Keep office staff fully briefed on the latest accurate information to be passed on to all parents who call seeking a status position. Be prepared and available to personally speak to parents who call, as many will want to offer some kind of support. Such calls also underline that you are not alone in the crisis.

* When a death occurs inform all staff personally, if possible. If tragedy occurs after hours, a telephone call is appropriate. This will make the next school day easier for you when meeting staff.

* Use the help of an appropriate parent who has a child in the deceased teacher's class to break the sad news to the other parents. This will help you concentrate on conveying the news to the children, who are of vital concern at this stage. An established class parent representative is ideal for this role. Emphasise our professional responsibility of providing support and warmth for the children in our care. Again, remind staff of the security there is for pupils in maintaining normal programmes.

* Do not be afraid to show emotion. Accept that it is OK to show emotions. Provide additional supply teacher support for staff who may need a break during the day. Speak to all children in manageable assembly groups as soon as possible after the said news is known. Perhaps sub-school groups of years 12, 34 and 56 would be suitable. Try to convey facts but try to convey a softer, more positive, approach. You may find a "life cycles" approach is helpful. Be warnedI this is a very difficult task and you need your thoughts to be well organised. Parents may be present at these gatherings.

* Do not be afraid to involve an appropriate member of the clergy or another trusted adult to help convey a message of hope and security to the children. You may wish for a brief prayer to be said by a clergyman at the conclusion of the pupil assemblies and at the end of the meeting with staff.

* The emphasis at staff level is one of teamwork, sharing, involvement and mutual support.

* Arrange to have a full-time grief counselling support for two or three days after the bereavement and continuing to be available for the days and weeks following. Our guidance officer (support staff with psychology or counselling training) was excellent. Be prepared for a range of emotional responses from students and staff. Recognise that the death of a staff member may trigger responses related to previous memories or experiences in staff and children.

* Proactively intervene with grief counselling sessions (conducted by a professional counsellor) for children displaying overt or potentially group hysterical reactions. Allow staff the time and the space to grieve privately. Encourage, rather than shun, parental support and involvement in the grieving process.

* As principal, do not carry the burden of the tragedy on your own. Try to involve the staff in the decisions made, and in part of the organisational requirements. Your leadership team will be a great support, and a great group to share your concerns or plans with. My assistant principal was of enormous support to me.

* I recommend that the school organises and conducts a brief ceremony in recognition of the staff member's contribution to the school. This should be a positive gathering and it does play a valuable part in the grieving process.

Ours was a serious but happy farewell ceremony, organised and run by two staff members from our leadership team. These teachers outlined the deceased teacher's career at the school and told several funny anecdotes about the teacher. They involved several children from the class whose teacher had died. These children read poems they had written. A group of senior children also shared some memories and thoughts.

The hall had been decorated with flowers contributed by the class of the deceased teacher. The religious education teacher, a local priest well known and respected by the school, led the assembly in prayer. At the end of this ceremony, some children released balloons in front of the school. This signified a kind of farewell.

* Look after yourself. This is a time of emotional stress and personal pressure. You will need help and guidance. Seek it from friends, family, staff members or colleagues you trust. Recognise that the grieving process will continue in parents, staff and children (and yourself) well after the initial crisis subsides. For some, this stage may last for many months.

* Some sort of notice needs to be placed in newspapers on behalf of staff and pupils and on behalf of school council and community. Unless specifically discouraged, flowers need to be sent to the home or the funeral parlour.

* In order that all staff may attend the funeral, you may appeal to parents to keep their children home on that day. You should keep the school open with supply teachers, colleagues or, if available, volunteer staff from neighbouring schools. A principal colleague volunteered to run my school for the day. This was a wonderful help and a really professional contribution.

* After the funeral, I highly recommend that the staff meet together for lunch or a late afternoon session. We met for lunch, in a separate room, at a local pub. The school funded drinks just to break the ice and encourage staff to relax and have a couple of drinks at no cost to them personally. Some days later formal letters needed to be written by myself, as principal, to our staffing branch, the remuneration board (responsible for pensions and financial benefits) and the regional general manager - each of these had administrative tasks and responsibilities to carry out following Lynne's death.

* Close contact should be kept with the family of the deceased. The deceased member's belongings need to be sorted out and packed for the family to collect when appropriate. Staff will probably volunteer to complete this difficult task.

* The selection of a replacement teacher to take the class whose teacher had died is a vital decision, demanding careful thought.

* We chose to leave the Lynn's photo in place in our foyer with other staff until the "normal" end of year removal of photos. Suitable wording was placed beneath the photo indicating that the staff member had passed away on a specific date. We also agreed to continue to speak of our former colleague in normal conversation, as appropriate. I believe this approach is an important part of the grieving process, and helpful in the acceptance of our loss.

* It may be appropriate for staff, children and school council to consider a fitting ongoing recognition, or memory, of the teacher. In time, an appropriate project will be agreed upon, perhaps two to three months after the sad event. This should be kept in perspective and will help all in a comforting way.

* This article first appeared in 'Prime Focus, The Professional Journal for Australian Primary School Leaders'. Executive editor Debra J Brydon:brydon@vpa.org.au


Lynne Hutton taught for 14 years at Mount Eliza North primary school in Victoria. She was a popular teacher - many parents requested that their children should be in her class - and her two children, now aged 22 and 19, had attended the school. One day, in September 1997, she complained of a stiff neck which she thought was a cold. The next day she collapsed with a brain haemorrhage and died nine days later, aged 46. She is remembered by her principal, John Renowden, and the staff, for her great sense of humour, fine teaching and her vitality.

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