As I sit down to write this the number of people who have died as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak has risen to 7248. Each day this number is rising and will continue to rise. Every day families suffer losses, and what is worse, they may not have been able to say goodbye. There is a lot of support for the bereaved, many messages of sympathy and offers of help. This is as it should be. We should be a compassionate and kind society who help each other in times of crisis. It is at times like this that we reach into the depths of ourselves to find the strength to support each other.
A few years ago I received a phone call that I will remember for the rest of my life. It was a normal Wednesday morning when I heard that one of my teaching assistants (Barbara, not her real name)had died. This was not an “expected death” as she had not been ill. For a few seconds time seemed to stand still as I spluttered out how sorry I was to her ex-husband and offered any help that the school could give. I was shell shocked. What was I to do? There was no policy, no procedure or flowchart to say what a school leader should do in this situation. I quickly met with my deputy and assistant head and told them what had happened, they were in just as much shock as me but we somehow came up with some sort of plan as to how to tell the staff and children what had happened. Various people were contacted and letters were written. I spent long periods ensuring that staff were okay, did they need to go home or were they okay to carry on. I prepared for the assembly we were going to have just before home time when I was going to tell the children what had happened and eventually, once all the staff had left, I sat in my room and cried my eyes out.
That was a very brief, but still painful to recall, outline of the situation I was in. Many school leaders will find themselves in the position of dealing with a loss in their school, whether it be a staff member, a pupil or a friend of the school. Although schools are closed there will be a time when they will reopen and it is then that the losses will be felt most keenly, once the school community is back together. There are some lessons that I learnt from my experience that I would like to share.
1. Be yourself and be visible. There are no policies or procedures that will cover how everyone will react. Staff and pupils will be looking to you for leadership and the only thing you can do is to act from your essence, not your ego. The staff, parents and children will need to see you. On the day I sent the letter out I went to the school gate as usual and the number of parents who came for a wordless hug was amazing. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Its fine to let people see you upset and emotional. You’re human, not a robot. Education is about relationships, you can’t have a relationship between people without emotion being involved at some level.
2. Be compassionate, not critical. The day after we got the news of Barbara’s death I had arranged for a counsellor to come into the school to talk to the staff. I explained what had happened and that I had received some further information. She had committed suicide and was found by her 14 year old son. I still remember him telling me that yesterday was bad, today is worse. I told him that I was planning on using the library as a space for adults and children to go for some quiet time at playtimes and lunchtimes. To give them an opportunity to pray if they wanted, or just be still. By allowing people to grieve in school, by ensuring that staff and children knew it was okay to cry and support each other, by putting aside all of the so-called important things such as lesson observations and book scrutinies staff felt supported. I also made the decision, supported by the governors, to close the school on the day of the funeral. I did have some telephone calls from the Local Authority about this, saying could I keep the school open and just let a few staff go. How on earth was I to decide who to let go and who had to stay behind? The school closed for the day and interestingly I did not get any complaints from parents. In fact quite a few of them turned up with their children for the service.
3. Talk about the people you have lost. We organised a book of remembrance in the school library where children and staff could write anything they wanted about our lost friend. In our school we were a very close staff. The care and support we gave our children and families was second to none. Barbara was a central part to that atmosphere and ethos and many of the stories about her were humorous and sometimes inappropriate for children to hear. She was loved, and she loved the children. Many of the children wrote lovely things in the book of remembrance which we gave to her family. My personal favourite was, “I loved Miss ……… she taught me how to spell fruit.” Children were encouraged to remember the things that Barbara had done for them, to remember her example of love and laughter. In the following weeks I often overheard reminiscences of the things that Barbara had done, pictures of her on welcome boards were gradually taken down but found their way into classroom cupboards. She will never truly leave the place and neither will the people that will be lost in this pandemic.
4. Don’t forget about yourself. If you are anything like me I wanted to make sure that every single member of staff was happy. One of the chairs in my room was nicknamed “the counselling chair” as it was where everyone came when they wanted to let off steam or have a brief meltdown about something. I spent so much time going round the staff and children that I didn’t take much care of myself. As long as everyone else was okay then I was doing my job. In fact, in order to do my job effectively I needed to put myself first once in a while. I didn’t do this and once the initial crisis was over I was never the same. Yes, I was still compassionate and caring. I still saw the children every day and visited every classroom to see how the staff were, but my decline into having mental heath issues began. Unfortunately I didn’t see it which is why I am sitting at home blogging, rather than running a school. I left my job for a number of reasons but the main one was stress.
Please stay safe and take care of yourselves.