It’s an unfortunate truth, but many principals will be faced with the death of a student, teacher or staff member during their tenure. In many cases, the death is unforeseen—and rarely is there the “luxury” of having a weekend to sort out our thoughts and measure our response before delivering the message to staff and students. While we will not be discussing the entire process of designing an effective response plan (Scott and Donna Poland do a fine job of that here), we do want to talk about how principals can prepare and support their teachers and staff.
One of the most important things a principal can do is provide appropriate details and guidelines on how to conduct classroom discussions. Teachers and staff should receive a script that contains information not only about the deceased, but also strategies for conducting in-class discussions.
10 tips for facilitating discussions with grieving students
In their book, Death in the Classroom: A Teacher’s Guide to Assisting Grieving Students, Kathleen Cassini and Jacqueline Rogers advise principals to communicate the following with their teachers:
- Although it may seem that you are unqualified to comfort your students, you are one of the best people for the job. Students know you; they have developed a relationship with you and may resent the “intrusion” of an outside professional who is meeting them at one of their most vulnerable moments. Because you are a part of the school community, students will see you as someone who realizes what they are experiencing.
- Be prepared to acknowledge that the death has occurred and use class time to discuss if needed. It would be a mistake to ignore the death and move directly into a lesson or a test. Each teacher must decide the amount of time needed to field questions and listen. Only after these needs have been met should class work resume.
- You should not feel it necessary to hide your emotions. If you are sad, tell your students. Don’t be afraid of your tears or theirs.
- Many of your students will display anger and confusion at the incident. Help the students explore creative and constructive ways to vent that anger. Students may benefit from making sympathy cards, sharing memories, listening to music, or simply writing in their journals.
- Avoid saying things like, “I once lost a friend; I know what you are going through,” or, “At least s/he had a happy life and now s/he is in a better place.” Statements like this are not only cliché, but may feel patronizing to students.
- Do not lecture, make judgments, or place blame on parents, students or the school.
- Medical questions are best answered by medical professionals. It’s okay to admit if you do not know the answer to a question.
- You may hear questions like, “Why did it happen?”, and the statement, “It isn’t fair.” Your students will appreciate honest answers like, “I don’t know why it happened” and, “You’re right, it isn’t fair.”
- Relate only the known facts. Do not draw your own conclusions or make judgment calls. If you are unsure how to respond to a question, don’t guess. If appropriate, tell them you will find out for them or refer them to the crisis intervention team.
- Your students may be frustrated by the fact that other students are laughing, talking loudly in the hallways or going about their day as though it were any other. Should this be the case, explain that perhaps these students did not know the deceased student, or maybe they are remembering good times they had with him, or maybe they are not comfortable showing their grief in public.
As we said above, the most important thing principals can do is develop an effective response to a death before it happens. To learn more about developing an effective response plan, check out Scott and Donna Polland’s article, “Dealing With Death at School.”