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 school principal was dealing with the aftermath of the deaths of three members of staff and one student.
No teacher training and no principal-preparation courses prepare someone for this. Yet the young people in your care will look to you and your staff to explain the inexplicable and comfort the grieving. Of course, there will be support from people in the local community with specific skills in these circumstances, but this does not remove the responsibility of leadership.
As a principal, I found that I had to deal with my own shock and grief at the deaths in my school, support students 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 principal cannot escape the responsibility of visibly leading the school through this time.
At the time of the first death during my time as a principal, 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 priest – 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 principal-training courses.
John Dunford is a former general secretary of British school leaders’ union ASCL