Why did Miss die?

7th July 2000 at 01:00
How do you explain a teacher's suicide to pupils? Stephen Bradberry tells how his school came to terms with a staff member's death at her own hands

Caring for children is part of a teacher's job. Children falling in the playground, tummy aches, feeling sick and earache are part and parcel of everyday life. More difficult are family bereavements, where a child needs careful support and a shoulder to cry on.

More difficult still are suicides. The responses and emotions following a suicide often differ from other forms of bereavement. But when the person taking his or her own life is a loved and respected member of staff, the shock, corporate grief and guilt is agonising.

The fact that a loved one's death appeared to involve some element of choice raises painful questions, which deaths from natural or accidental causes do not.

Such was the case at Holy Trinity senior school in Calderdale, west Yorkshire, where a middle-aged, female PE teacher took her own life. She had been in the post for nine years. She had a vibrant and radiant personality, and she was very good at her job, inspiring pupils to reach targets they might never have otherwise managed. She successfully coached sporting teams throughout Calderdale.

Suddenly and unexpectedly she was gone. The sense of shock and disbelief was intense. There must be a mistake - it could not be true. The tragedy and circumstances were overwhelming. What were we, the staff, to tell the pupils? After all, this is a school that prides itself on being a family.

The school has 1,000 pupils aged 11 to 18. It is well staffed with an excellent senior management team. "What do we do and say?" was the first question. "How do we help the pupils? How do we help other members of staff? How do we help the family?" Fortunately the school, a Church of England senior school, has a chaplaincy team made up of seven members of staff, including the headteacher. I lead the team.

We also have an external chaplaincy team made up of six local clergy from a variety of denominations. Each of these six ministers (four women and two men) has a particular responsibility for year groups 7 to 13.

As soon as the news of our colleague's death broke, the external chaplains and I got together with three local authority educational psychologists and quickly decided on the counsellin process. Pupils were given time to express their grief individually or in groups. The "what ifs" seemed endless. "What if I had picked up on that warning comment or sign?" Pupils who had been taught that day in the teacher's class asked: "Did we stress her out - is it our fault?"

Rewinding events is a natural and necessary way of coping with what has happened. For some bereaved people, feelings of guilt may be difficult to deal with - these feelings were not confined to the pupils. Staff, too, went through self-blame and self-questioning. "Should we not have picked up signals of stress? Why could we not have prevented this tragedy?" Pupils and staff were given time and space to come to terms with the loss as well as opportunities to talk, remember and celebrate the teacher's life and personality.

For most bereaved people, grief is a private matter. But when a loved one has died through suicide it inevitably attracts public interest - which can be stressful. Again senior managers dealt with the press in a sensitive and positive way. In times of difficulty, families, even a family of 1,000 pupils, unite. To that extent good has come out of bad. Pupils and staff have an increased respect and understanding for each other. Their faith in God has been strengthened.

Often there is a unity in grief. The memorial service became a celebration of the life and work of a lost member of the "family". The school council (representatives of each form) bought two books for pupils and staff to write their thoughts, prayers and thanks. These were later presented to the teacher's family. They were full of deeply expressed sentiments and feelings.

As chaplain of this school I pay tribute to all those who rallied round to give all they could give. I am proud of my school. My belief in human nature - my belief in a powerful God - has been strengthened. In a climate of education which is often focused on tests and exam results, it is refreshing to see corporate care and concern.

What I have seen will never be recorded in a league table, but goes far deeper in a learning experience. Here was an example of school, church and local education authority working together for the good of all.

The Rev Dr Stephen Bradberry is head of maths and chaplain at Holy Trinity C of E senior school, Calderdale, west Yorkshire

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